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Remember that shirt you almost bought online but then didn’t? Remember how for the next couple days that exact shirt showed up in ads on almost every website you went on? This is targeted advertising – one of the many ways websites use the data they collect from tracking your online identity.

As data privacy continues to be major buzzword in the tech space, we should understand exactly how websites are tracking our data and whether this is a good or bad thing.


We want your data!

Before looking into the ways websites can track you online, lets first understand why our online actions are being tracked. In general, there are two main reasons:

Better Websites

Websites track you to gather information about how you use the site, what you click on, how long you stay etc. This data allows websites to customize their layouts and features to match your individual needs and preferences and improve your overall experience.

Custom Marketing

Remember that shirt we talked about? Advertising companies will use tools to track your online actions to build a profile on you and your tastes. These tools help determine what sort of products you like, what items you always go back to and even what purchases you make on a frequent basis. From this data, advertisers can create customized ads for what you are actually like.


How we get your data

There are many different tools websites can use to gather data about your online identity. Websites often use all or some of the following tools..

IP Address

Every device using the internet has a unique ID called an IP Address. This address is shared with the websites you visit every time your browser opens. IP Addresses do not hold information about your personal identity but share with websites your general location (i.e. which city you’re in), the type of browser you are using (Chrome, Firefox, Safari etc.) and whether you are surfing the web from a mobile or desktop device.

This type of data is not t00 revealing but when used with data from other tracking tools, can help websites identify you. Browsing the internet is not possible without an IP Address however, you can hide it from websites using certain privacy settings if you want.


Cookies are the reason your Netflix username and password are already there when you open the site. and, why that t-shirt is still in your shopping cart three days later. These cookies are small text files that websites use to keep certain data about you. This can be your login info, your setting preferences, your location and even your browsing habits. Cookies are not always a bad thing, as they often make your online experience easier and more customized.

It’s important to know that cookies can’t collect data on their own. The only data they keep is the data that the website has instructed them to gather, so not everything you do online is collected by cookies. If you don’t like the idea of cookies however, blocking websites from using them is easy! Just go to the settings tab on your browser to block them.


IP Addresses and cookies are pretty easy to block on your devices. When this happens, websites rely on fingerprinting instead. Fingerprinting is a way for websites to get information about you through your browser.  This information can be your browser type, time zone, language etc. Although this is not sensitive data, there is a very small chance that your specific settings and browser details are the exact same as someone else’s. So, websites can use these details to create a virtual identity which advertisers can track to see your online habits and interests.

Privacy Policies

Often overlooked, privacy policies have a huge role in what personal data websites can collect. When signing up to use sites like Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. you have to agree to each site’s privacy policy. In general, these policies allow sites to watch everything you do when you’re on the site.  This can be tracking which posts you like on Instagram, or the locations you check into on Facebook. These personal details help websites determine your interests, habits and preferences. Many policies include clauses that allow sites to sell this information about you to third-party companies.


Data tracking at its core is not for abusing our privacy but for improving our online experiences. However, we all have different comfort levels on what and how much information we are ok with sharing. It is important that we all decide what we are willing to share and base our privacy settings and online actions on this comfortability.


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Emily Cummings

Author Emily Cummings

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