Consumer digital information tracked by companies

By Madelyn Foster, Staff Writer

Sometimes, cookies aren’t so sweet.

Chang-Dae Ham, assistant professor of advertising in the College of Media and assistant research professor at the Institute of Communications Research, published research on how consumers react to online behavioral advertising.

Online behavioral advertising collects data on the websites a consumer has visited, the duration of time they spent on certain websites as well as purchasing information, primarily through the use of third-party cookies.

“There are many different ways to track our online behavior, but one of the most significant and the most frequently used is third party cookies,” Ham said. “Most websites can embed some kind of very small file on our browser, and after that file is implanted, it becomes a messenger from my browser to their servers.”

Ham said one visit to any website can open doors for countless companies to access consumer data and use it to paint a picture of the consumer’s wants and needs.

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“There are data management companies and they aggregate all of the online behavior data, and they also can aggregate my credit card data. They use those data to infer what kind of person I am,” Ham said.

Online behavior data collection is not limited to laptops; it also occurs on smartphones, tablets and all other devices utilizing online access.

“Companies have tools to recognize that it’s all the same person. That’s how they combine data from Google, data from Facebook and credit card companies,” Ham said.

The ability for companies to gather consumer information without permission has become a cause for concern. Ham’s research focused on consumers’ knowledge of online behavioral advertising and how they react to it.

Using a diverse sample of 422 University students ages 18-32, Ham was able to find sufficient data to support several of his hypotheses.

“Even though consumers may not know anything about online behavioral advertising, they still feel uncomfortable with how it works,” he said. “Google, Facebook and advertisers are using your personal information for their revenue without you knowing, and I don’t think that’s a particularly fair situation.”

Ham also found in general, younger people are not as concerned about online privacy as people over 40.

Evan Patel, sophomore in LAS, said his dad taught him about online behavioral advertising and how it works, though he’s not concerned about it affecting his online safety.

“I don’t think in terms of safety there is anything they can do besides give me tailored ads,” Patel said.

Maddie Rice, sophomore in Media, said she also does not see a reason to be concerned about her online safety.

“I have some protection on my laptop, just standard, nothing special really. My dad recommended it,” she said.

Though, Rice said that she often sees advertisements for shopping sites that she’s visited previously.

“I think that it’s kind of creepy,” she said.

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