The war for our personal data

We’ve spent the last few weeks unpacking what privacy means in the online world. One theme that seems to be consistent is the lack of consistency in the way privacy, particularly with consumer data, is interpreted and handled. Companies use the guise of privacy policies to create their own definitions that ultimately suit their needs. And as consumers, it’s time that we create our own definitions, for things which matter most to us, individually.

How many of us understand the origins and fundamentals behind the madness of cookies, online tracking and how we got to where we are? This short clip describes the journey in a very simple, yet confronting manner:

By now, if you’ve visited any website, you’ve no doubt been prompted with an on-screen message “asking” you to accept the website’s cookies policy. The term asking is being generous, given if you elect to “not accept” (aka “opt-out”), the page usually closes. The term “cookies” (and not the kind that still has me sitting impatiently in front of the oven) has become an everyday term that we’ve all heard of. But how and what make up a cookie and how are they used? 

A cookie is a string of letters and numbers that form a unique ID to help the site to remember you. This piece of tech was invented by Lou Montulli in 1994 (that year not a typo!) to help solve the problem of bringing memory to the internet. As Cleo Abram from Vox notes in the video “Imagine every time you put something in your cart and clicked away, it disappeared. Or each time you load a page on Facebook, you have to login again”. A piece of tech that was built to provide convenience and speed to the way in which we browse the internet. Doesn’t seem so bad right? Then things took a turn…

In an attempt to reach more people and to connect consumers to brands and companies that they otherwise may not have shown an interest in, this once very convenient and useful piece of tech was exploited. The exploitation of Lou Montulli’s invention, in the form of third-party cookies and tracking, have enabled companies to share your data with each other and track all of your online activity.

The inventor himself is not particularly fond of the way in which his invention is now being used. When asked how he feels about the way in which Facebook and Google use the technology that he invented, Lou comments “It (cookies) could be removed from ad tracking. I’d like that so people would stop blaming me for it… Advertisers won’t let it die. If it (cookies) was [outlawed], they would just move to another technology. There are other technologies that would suffice, but they would remove transparency. That would remove the ability for the end user to control it”. More tracking, more data, less transparency and no ability for users to control the flow of their data? Sound the alarm bells!

We’ve previously commented on reports of Google’s plan to disable the use of third-party cookies. Originally planned for 2021, the disablement of the technology that gave tech giants such as Google and Facebook such a stranglehold on the internet, the world economy and our lives, has now been delayed until 2022. If the tech giants found a way to exploit a tool of convenience, it’s not crazy to feel even more worried about what they are cooking up next.

With billions of dollars at stake, it’s no surprise to hear that there has been a delay to disable third-party cookies. As the war for our data rages on, the tech giants who know so much about us already, have the money and resources to find new ways to get more of our data, seemingly hold the keys to what happens next. That is of course, unless we as the collective people, say enough is enough.