If Cookies Don’t Bring Cash, What Are They Doing with Our Data?

So, according to the Wall Street Journal, all of the cookies that companies drop all over your computer – the ones that track your every online move and then report it to whichever advertiser ponies up the coins for your data – aren’t actually bringing in all that much revenue.

The WSJ piece references a study from researchers at the University of Minnesota, University of California, Irvine, and Carnegie Mellon University, which suggests that publishers only get about 4% more revenue for a cookie-enabled ad impression than they do for one that isn’t. 

I’m confused and starting to think that I was extremely naïve. That or I drank the Kool-Aid I was smilingly offered by some tech exec wearing a sweet little old Grandma costume. Until very recently I thought that most of big tech’s reluctance to stop tracking us online was to make money selling to data brokers. Those data brokers feed various industries that want to sell us things. But if this study is correct, and cookies don’t actually bring in tons of ad dollars, what exactly are they gathering so much data for?

“The finding is significant because for years cookie-based ads have been extolled as major revenue drivers for publishers by those in the online ad industry. If the study is correct, then that’s not actually the case at all and it could have major ramifications for online privacy,” Fast Company wrote.

I’ll say it’s significant. Of course, I know there are other uses for our data, but I was low key comfortable thinking that money was the primary motivator. Call me the product of a capitalistic society, but I was okay with that. I mean, not okay okay, but I understand the money angle. Money is power, it’s reach, it’s influence, it’s engagement, it’s behavioral modification: buy this or eat this or drink this or watch this, not this. But now I can’t help but wonder: what other behavior modification plans/dastardly plans may be afoot? 

Greed is one thing. But seriously, what if there’s something more sinister at work? Like greed on top of control, for instance. The possibilities are endless, and now so are my questions. 

Just a few days ago I was happy to learn that California’s Consumer Protection Act AB 375 2018 will be in effect in just six months. I was hoping the precedent would pave the way for other states – like my own – to follow suit in the data privacy and protection department. But even that planted a seed of disquiet in my mind. Look at this verbiage:

“Many businesses collect personal information from California consumers,” the law states. “They may know where a consumer lives and how many children a consumer has, how fast a consumer drives, a consumer’s personality, sleep habits, biometric and health information, financial information, precise geolocation information, and social networks, to name a few categories.”

That’s seriously more information – detailed, private, none of anyone’s legit business information – than many people’s significant others can pull to mind in a pinch. Doesn’t that make you nervous? And the sad part is, lawmakers are probably playing it down. After all, they didn’t name all of the categories.

Now my busy little brain is wondering all manner of things: 

  • How long have the powers that be been collecting data on me? 
  • Who really has access to it? 
  • Does everyone have to pay for data about me and other people like me? How much?
  • Is it really for sale to absolutely anyone? 
  • How is my data being used by industries outside of advertising? Healthcare, insurance? I know they’re in the data game; it’s why I turned my nose up at entering my info into most health apps. Subconsciously I must have seen this coming.  
  • Is there a digital profile out there somewhere on every single person who uses technology? 
  • Do I really have any control at all over how others can use my data – potentially against me?

I think the reason someone named them cookies is because they needed something innocuous to siphon away the Mr. Robot-esque grossness of our extreme lack of data privacy. Cookies are good, harmless. The push ads they fuel are annoying and intrusive, but they aren’t – on the surface at least – potentially tragic. 

But with this marked lack of revenue now attached to data privacy, that’s what all this data gathering is, it’s tragic. It suggests that like Facebook attorney Orin Snyder said in a hearing for a class-action lawsuit related to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal: You don’t have any privacy online. Any double dutch to the contrary is just big tech’s sly misdirection.

I just hope these paranoid visions I keep having of bland white clothes, perfectly manicured environments, and expressionless humans walking placidly to their assigned work groups are just leftovers from watching Equals.

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