Data mine

Companies use information gathered from people’s online activities

Posted on Jan 30, 2019 :: Standing Feature
Posted by , Insight on Technology Staff Writer

If you are considering deleting your Facebook account because you are worried your personal data is being shared with others, it is probably too late.

Every action a person does online is tracked and measured in some way, says Jim Dobinski, managing director of Stellar Blue Technologies in Neenah.

“Many people just didn’t realize it was going on until what happened with the election and what’s happened since then with news about different data breaches,” he says. “Whatever social media platform you are on, you’re being tracked — what posts you like, what ads you click on.”

Businesses track online movements using cookies — small pieces of code dropped on your device, whether it’s a phone, laptop or other device connected to the internet. Cookies hold data specific to the user that can be accessed by the web server.

Companies gain access when users click “I agree” when a box pops up explaining the site’s cookie policy on their first visit to the site or when downloading an app. Dobinski says most people don’t even read the information and just hit agree. If users don’t agree, site access is limited.

“That’s the entryway for businesses to begin gathering information — or data — on you,” he says.

And what happens with the data collected? Using artificial intelligence, or AI, businesses develop personal marketing plans to persuade you to buy an item or service.

Justin Harrison, web development manager for the Weidert Group in Appleton, says a lot of data collection is automated with a bot behind the scenes reading what sites you visit, what you click on and more. The bot then takes that information and provides a next action, such as deciding what ad you may see next.

“Artificial intelligence is used in a ton of ways — you simply aren’t aware of it. For instance, it is what puts recommendations in your Netflix queue or when Gmail provides you with recommended quick replies on your mobile phone based on how you write back to people,” he says.

Data collection

Data falls into two different buckets: big data and small data, says Miles Smith, digital marketing director for Imaginasium in Green Bay. With big data, businesses try to collect as much information as possible on as many people as possible. Small data is personalized data collection on a particular consumer.

“Big data and small data blend together to create a one-on-one experience for consumers, so they don’t feel part of a larger group, but special,” Smith says.

For consumers, it’s a real challenge to determine what data is being collected by whom, Harrison says.

“It’s a lot of work to dig through that privacy policy no one reads. From an application standpoint, this is also dependent on user settings,” he says. “Many applications only allow specific collection when being used, which users can manage from their phone settings. Most websites collect user data that users give in return for using services.”

If consumers actually read through a website’s privacy statement, they’d uncover a company’s internal rules about what data is collected and how it may be used. Smith says some businesses keep that information to themselves, while others may sell it to a third party.

As websites and apps gather data, AI takes over. That explains why when you get in your car at 7 a.m., your GPS app predicts the best route to get to work that day depending on current traffic levels — even though you didn’t punch in your destination.

“Content marketing systems (CMS) are getting more sophisticated in how they collect and process data behind the scenes,” Smith says. “That all determines what you see on websites.”

To share an example, Harrison mentions the retailer Target. Once a consumer goes to its site and creates an account — signing up using an email — the bots running in the background use that information along with the cookies dropped on the site to track movements.

“If you start searching baby items, Target might review all the data via an algorithm and determine you are having a baby and send you targeted campaigns to incentivize a purchase,” he says. “It also works this way for abandoned carts where you later get an email saying, ‘You left something in your cart.’ They tie your email and then where you’ve been online based on that cookie data.”

Search engines do the same, which is why after you view an item on a particular retail site it keeps showing up on your Facebook
feed or in advertising spots on other websites, Dobinski says.

“The data collected by Google or other search engines is a gold mine for businesses looking to market their products or services in what’s called remarketing,” he says.

All businesses can sign up for Google Ads — or a similar program on other search engines — and then customize the type of consumer they want to target in a remarketing campaign.

“If you are a business who wants to reach a particular demographic — let’s say it’s working moms in their 30s living in Northeast Wisconsin — you can go to Google Ads and plug in that information. From there, it gets to work combing through its data looking for a match,” Dobinski says.

Smith says businesses need to balance being helpful to consumers versus creeping them out when it comes to using their data. “It should be common sense about what to do and not do with someone’s information, but for some, that sense is not there,” he says. “You want to be timely and helpful in sending consumers remarketing nudges, but there’s a fine line. You don’t want to turn consumers off.”

While some may cringe about the amount of data being collected, Harrison says  it helps provide consumers with the information they’re seeking.

“You trade some privacy in order to experience the applications and the tools that make our lives easier. Things like ordering food or getting somewhere without traffic,” he says. “It’s not so scary because ultimately users want to see this type of targeting, so their experience is better.”

Protecting yourself

While there are some U.S. laws in place that can limit what marketers can do with information collected, there are tougher rules in place in Europe, and Jim Dobinski of Stellar Blue predicts those eventually will find their way here.

“When you go to a website in Europe, it clearly tells you how it’s tracking you,” he says. “I suspect we will see some form of that here. It’s pretty wild out there now and I think the different data breaches, such as Facebook or the Marriott hotels, will spur some sort of action.”

Besides getting off the internet altogether, one way consumers can protect themselves is to be careful about what they share online.

“Stay away from those Facebook or other social media surveys that claim to tell you something special about you, such as what special word defines you,” Dobinski says. “Once they have that info, they can improve their target marketing even more.”