Most students are attached to their devices, be it their cell phones or their laptops. Much of our activity on these devices is online—using social media or browsing the web. Simply browsing the web means that our browser acquires cookies, which are commands that communicate information to a website.
Cookies allow companies to track web users’ Internet habits.
Dr. Kyle Tarplee is the director of engineering programs at AU and teaches courses in computer engineering. “Your web browser communicates with the web server, and the browser will accept cookies from the website,” he said. “They issue this set command that your browser stores that cookie and will issue it back to the server for every request thereafter.”
“When you load an advertisement on a webpage it almost always gives you cookies and then looks at the cookies that you give them [from browsing other sites],” Tarplee said.
The advertisers are then able to recognize the cookies that you have, make specific judgments as to who you are, and then show an ad that is relevant to you.
Professor Anna Stumpf is an assistant marketing professor and the director of the Residential MBA program. She said that advertisers are able to collect data about users based on their browsing habits and build a profile about what kind of person that user is.
“They use profile data to gather behavioral patterns, to retarget to you,” she said. “So if you’re looking at an item on store website and you jump off that and get onto a newspaper website, you’ll see the ad for that product.”
She explained that it is useful for companies to build Customer Relationship Management (CRM) databases with all of the information gathered using cookies. A company can use the information stored in a CRM to help retain a customer. Retaining customers is always cheaper than trying to earn a new customer.
“What’s great about it is, if I know you’ve been to my website and I know you’ve looked at a pair of shoes, then I can put that pair of shoes in front of you again,” she said. “There’s already an interest there; I’m not even trying to sell you something you don’t want.”
The current era of marketing is focused on relationships. “Little things like retargeting products or services helps build that familiarity, that loyalty, that relationship,” Stumpf said. Consumers are less likely to have a face-to-face interaction while shopping, so retargeting can build a personal connection between the consumer and the brand.
Cookies help store our information for convenience. They enable your favorite website to recognize you when you log in.
“There’s some sort of value in it for us that draws us in,” Stumpf explained. Cookies make web browsing easier and more enjoyable for consumers.
If you are concerned about the volume of information collected by cookies, there are ways to mitigate the loss of privacy and maintain some anonymity on the web.
Tarplee said that you can set a header called “do not track” on your browser preferences. “If they try to issue a cookie that expands beyond that domain, your browser will reject that and not put that it the cookie jar.”
Another option is to use safe browsing. “It temporarily creates its own cookie jar and allows you to access the websites and then deletes it, so you lose all that information,” Tarplee said.
“If you dig down into your preferences you can find all the cookies and see where they all come from,” Tarplee said. “They’re mostly sites that you’ve never been to because they’re links that are from advertising websites that keep bringing cookies in.”
He said that you can delete all of the cookies from links that you do not recognize without affecting websites you use regularly.
Tarplee also said that anonymity on the web is not truly possible. “No matter what you do on the network, it’s visible by somebody else,” he said. “Whether it be obscured by other mechanisms, you’re still talking to something on the other end. That thing on the other end knows a decent amount about you. Your activity can’t be purely anonymous; you’ll be tracked in some way or another.”