I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web

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Who are these companies and what do they want from me? A voyage into the invisible business that funds the web.

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This morning, if you opened your browser and went to NYTimes.com, an amazing thing happened in the milliseconds between your click and when the news about North Korea and James Murdoch appeared on your screen. Data from this single visit was sent to 10 different companies, including Microsoft and Google subsidiaries, a gaggle of traffic-logging sites, and other, smaller ad firms. Nearly instantaneously, these companies can log your visit, place ads tailored for your eyes specifically, and add to the ever-growing online file about you.

There's nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content. All the data lets advertisers tune their ads, and the rest of the information logging lets them measure how well things are actually working. And I do not mean to pick on The New York Times. While visiting the Huffington Post or The Atlantic or Business Insider, the same process happens to a greater or lesser degree. Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized.

Even if you're generally familiar with the idea of data collection for targeted advertising, the number and variety of these data collectors will probably astonish you. Allow me to introduce the list of companies that tracked my movements on the Internet in one recent 36-hour period of standard web surfing: Acerno. Adara Media. Adblade. Adbrite. ADC Onion. Adchemy. ADiFY. AdMeld. Adtech. Aggregate Knowledge. AlmondNet. Aperture. AppNexus. Atlas. Audience Science.

And that's just the As. My complete list includes 105 companies, and there are dozens more than that in existence. You, too, could compile your own list using Mozilla's tool, Collusion, which records the companies that are capturing data about you, or more precisely, your digital self.

While the big names -- Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, etc. -- show up in this catalog, the bulk of it is composed of smaller data and advertising businesses that form a shadow web of companies that want to help show you advertising that you're more likely to click on and products that you're more likely to purchase.

To be clear, these companies gather data without attaching it to your name; they use that data to show you ads you're statistically more likely to click. That's the game, and there is substantial money in it.

As users, we move through our Internet experiences unaware of the churning subterranean machines powering our web pages with their cookies and pixels trackers, their tracking code and databases. We shop for wedding caterers and suddenly see ring ads appear on random web pages we're visiting. We sometimes think the ads following us around the Internet are "creepy." We sometimes feel watched. Does it matter? We don't really know what to think.

The issues the industry raises did not exist when Ronald Reagan was president and were only in nascent form when the Twin Towers fell. These are phenomena of our time and while there are many antecedent forms of advertising, never before in the history of human existence has so much data been gathered about so many people for the sole purpose of selling them ads.

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," my old friend and early Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher once said. "That sucks," he added. But increasingly I think these issues -- how we move "freely" online, or more properly, how we pay one way or another -- are actually the leading edge of a much bigger discussion about the relationship between our digital and physical selves. I don't mean theoretically or psychologically. I mean that the norms established to improve how often people click ads may end up determining who you are when viewed by a bank or a romantic partner or a retailer who sells shoes.

Already, the web sites you visit reshape themselves before you like a carnivorous school of fish, and this is only the beginning. Right now, a huge chunk of what you've ever looked at on the Internet is sitting in databases all across the world. The line separating all that it might say about you, good or bad, is as thin as the letters of your name. If and when that wall breaks down, the numbers may overwhelm the name. The unconsciously created profile may mean more than the examined self I've sought to build.

Most privacy debates have been couched in technical. We read about how Google bypassed Safari's privacy settings, whatever those were. Or we read the details about how Facebook tracks you with those friendly Like buttons. Behind the details, however, are a tangle of philosophical issues that are at the heart of the struggle between privacy advocates and online advertising companies: What is anonymity? What is identity? How similar are humans and machines? This essay is an attempt to think through those questions.

The bad news is that people haven't taken control of the data that's being collected and traded about them. The good news is that -- in a quite literal sense -- simply thinking differently about this advertising business can change the way that it works. After all, if you take these companies at their word, they exist to serve users as much as to serve their clients.

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Before we get too deep, let's talk about the reality of the online display advertising industry. (That means, essentially, all the ads not associated with a web search.) There are a dizzying array of companies and services who can all make a buck by helping advertisers target you a teensy, weensy bit better than the next guy. These are companies that must prove themselves quite narrowly in measurable revenue and profit; the competition is fierce, the prize is large, and the strategies are ever-changing. Here's the coral-reef level diversity of corporate life in display advertising, as cataloged by Luma Partners a little over a year ago:

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Don't get too caught up in all of that, though. There are three basic categories: Essentially, there are people who help the buyers (on the left), people who help the sellers (on the right), and a whole lot of people who assist either side with more data or faster service or better measurement. Let's zoom in on three of them -- just from the As -- to give you an idea of the kinds of outfits we're talking about.

Let's look at three companies from our list of As. Adnetik is a standard targeting company that uses real-time bidding. They can offer targeted ads based on how users act (behavioral), who they are (demographic), where they live (geographic), and who they seem like online (lookalike), as well as something they call "social proximity." They also give advertisers the ability to choose the types of sites on which their ads will run based on "parameters like publisher brand equity, contextual relevance to the advertiser, brand safety, level of ad clutter and content quality."

It's worth noting how different this practice is from traditional advertising. The social contract between advertisers and publications used to be that publications gathered particular types of people into something called an audience, then advertisers purchased ads in that publication to reach that audience. There was an art to it, and some publications had cachet while others didn't. Online advertising upends all that: Now you can buy the audience without the publication. You want an Atlantic reader? Great! Some ad network can sell you someone who has been to The Atlantic but is now reading about hand lotion at KnowYourHandLotions.com. And they'll sell you that set of eyeballs for a fifth of the price. You can bid in real-time on a set of those eyeballs across millions of sites without ever talking to an advertising salesperson. (Of course, such a tradeoff has costs, which we'll see soon.)

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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