The Data You Reveal Online: What Websites Collect

Part 1 of 4: This blog series will detail all of the data that browsers, websites, and social media collect every time you browse the internet. We will also provide actionable steps to minimize your online fingerprint and protect your data.

← Read Part 1

It’s no secret that websites want to know as much as possible about their visitors and their online behavior. This is largely done to improve user experience and increase conversions, but the information can also be used to display targeted ads based on your previous searches.

The Data You Reveal Online: What Websites Collect 1

At some point in your life you’ve probably clicked through on a pop-up accepting a website’s use of cookies. The purpose of a cookie is to help the website keep track of your visits and activity. When you visit a website, the website sends a cookie to your computer. Your computer stores it in a file located inside your web browser.

Cookies can be very useful for both users and site owners. For example, many online retailers use cookies to keep track of the items in a user’s shopping cart as they explore the site.  Without cookies, your shopping cart would reset every time you clicked a new link on the site, making it impossible to buy anything online.

A cookie might also save you the trouble of having to pick a particular city every time you visit a weather website, because the site knows what you picked last time.

While cookies are a fundamentally necessary aspect of web browsing, not all cookies are created equally. Cookies can go further than just keeping items in your shopping cart. The use of these files can help websites to build a more complete personal profile that first started to take shape with the data reported by your browser.

Ordinarily, websites can’t read cookies other than the ones they’ve left themselves for security reasons, but so-called third-party cookies complicate the picture further. These cookies aren’t associated with a particular site but get injected across multiple pages through ad networks and other tracking technologies, often without any explicit permission from the user or the sites in question.

Third-party cookies are mostly used by marketers to track your browsing activities across multiple sites and serve you tailored ads. This is why that toaster you researched yesterday continues to follow you for a week via online ads.

A recent study from Princeton University found that third-party cookies embedded in 482 of the top 50,000 sites on the web recorded virtually all of their users’ browser activity for analysis. These recordings are reportedly for the purpose of website optimization and targeted advertising. Sensitive information is supposedly redacted from these records, but it presents another instance of users having to put their trust into the hands of third-party companies.

Internet service providers (ISPs), which can now legally collect and sell your browsing history without your authorization, also add to the heap of data collected as we browse the web. Information being sold by ISPs includes:

  • who you are,

  • where you’ve been,

  • who you’ve been talking to and

  • what you’re interested in.

All of this information collected by web browsers, websites, and internet providers is compiled to generate a highly detailed profile of every internet user. And it only gets more comprehensive.

In our next post, we’ll discuss all of the data that social media platforms collect and contribute to your online profile.

Breadcrumb Cybersecurity helps organizations protect their infrastructure, critical data, and reputation from today’s advanced cyber threats. Based in California, Breadcrumb offers comprehensive cybersecurity services for organizations throughout the U.S. Our services include regulatory compliance, risk assessments, digital forensics, penetration testing, incident response, technical/staff training, 24/7 security operations, and on-going advisory services.
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