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Cookies, Pixels & Persuadeables

Cookie. A small data file is used to store information about your visit to a website on your local machine or deviceCookie, tasty or inedible?

You remember that meme that went around, on Facebook (ironic), about why raisin cookies are why people have trust issues? You know, because the cookie looked like one thing but was something completely different.

I don’t have trust issues with raisin cookies, I actually prefer them over chocolate ones. I do, however have trust issues when it comes to computer cookies.

A cookie is a little data file that’s dropped onto your computer by a website developer to help remember your visit when you return.

Cookies were designed to help you. The messaging they use around this is doing something to save you time and help you out. Keep that in mind. I’ll come back to that.

Facebook Pixel

In reality, I don’t have a problem so much with Cookies, I do actually understand why they’re useful. What I have a problem with, is the Facebook Pixel.

This post, I’m going to outline what the Facebook Pixel is, what data it’s collection, what it’s doing with that data and why I think it’s pretty important that we do something about it.

In the next article in this series I’m going to talk about the impact that collecting your data has on you, your family and your business. This is going to throw a bit more light onto what data is being grabbed, where it’s being grabbed and why you’re playing fast & loose with data that’s not yours to give (without you realising it).

I’m going to wrap the series up with some practical steps that you could take to take back control of your data and manage your privacy.

Cookies & Pixels

So we know that a Cookie is a little data file. If it’s dropped by a website owner and the contents of it exists to help you when you return to the website and nothing more, it’s called a 1st Party Cookie.

Pixels, However are something slightly different.

A pixel is the clever name that Facebook and Google have given to the tracking device they use to track you. Business owners drop a Facebook Pixel onto their website and when their own cookie is dropped on your machine, it attaches itself to it. This is called a 3rd party cookie.

Please note the Google Pixel is not the same as the Google analytics tracking code. Pixel is used for advertising tracking. Google analytics is used to understand visitor behaviour on a website.  It is possible to set up Google analytics so data is not passed back to Google (which I’ve enabled).

The term Pixel, in this context, probably comes from a guy called Alex Tew. In 2005 Alex created a website that sold advertising space based on a pixel in size. It was dubbed the Million Dollar Website as that’s how much it generated for him. You can read more about the page he created on the article about it on Wikipedia  – side note, Cricklade isn’t too far from where I live.

Facebook and Google are using an almost identical approach, dropping a pixel of data on a website to track how visitors move from one site to another.

What I’ll be covering

I wanted to cover a couple of things for ease of reading. I’m going to be talking largely about Facebook for the rest of this article.

This is because Facebook’s shady behaviour is now well established and are showing no signs of behaving in an ethical manner. Google, as far as I’m aware, have not behaved in quite the same way.

Secondly, I’m basing what I’m about to tell you on what happens if you are not using a web browser or plugin to prevent this kind of behaviour. If you would like to know more about how to protect yourself, stay tuned for later this week when I’ll be sharing some simple stay safe tips to help.

How it works

When you land on a website the Facebook pixel fires up its code. What it then does is send a signal to the main server with your visitor data. If you’re visiting a website in a browser that you’ve previously logged into Facebook on, it will match your visitor data with your personal data.

All this data is then aggregated on Facebook’s servers. It builds up a massive picture of you online. There are very few websites that don’t have the Facebook pixel installed.

If you’re a business that does online advertising, specifically via Instagram or Facebook, you’ll have probably been told to plonk a Facebook pixel on your website. They sell you this with the idea that if you put this on your site it will help you to build up a picture of your visitors. Which it does, but what it’s also doing is helping Facebook to build a big fat dataset.

If you’re advertising with Instagram and Facebook then you’re also paying them for that right.

What you’re in actual fact doing, is paying twice. Tangibly by handing over your credit card details, and intangibly by giving Facebook the right to make money off of the data you’re collecting about your customers to fatten its wallet.

If you don’t have a well written GDPR statement, you’re handing your customer data over to Facebook without asking your visitors or giving them the opportunity for it not to happen.

Sounds bad

It does sound bad. It is bad. Sadly, it gets worse.

Facebook are actively buying in datasets from organisations like Experian. You probably know Experian as someone who manages your credit file. They tell financial institutions how reliable you are financially.

Experian also have something called Mosaic. Mosaic builds up a picture of consumers. It combines offline spending information to create demographic profiles. These are then bought by media agencies and large businesses to build a picture of consumer trending.

Simply if a person in a particular demographic is likely to buy something based upon this profile.

Combining a dataset you’ve collected yourself with an outside agencies is nothing new. It’s done all the time. It’s actually regulated in the UK. As it contains financial data the financial watchdog oversees its use, along with marketing and data watchdogs.

The problem is what Facebook has been doing with your data. They made it available to Cambridge Analytica.

The Cambridge Analytica Problem

I’m not going to go in to masses of detail about the Cambridge Analytics scandal. Others have done a better job than I did. If you don’t know much about it, please find out more. You can do that by reading the Guardian’s coverage of it or watching The Great Hack on Netflix – both of which I recommend.

The thing that surprised me the most about this, wasn’t that it happened. It was that everyone else was surprised it had happened.

I’ve known for years what data Facebook allows app developers to take. I’ve known since 2010 how much data can be taken. That’s going to be the topic of my next post.

If you watch the film, the Great Hack, you’ll find out how Cambridge Analytica used the data they gathered in Facebook to create profiles of people. They were used as part of the 2016 Trump Campaign. They created a profile that they called “persuadables”. These were individuals that given the right stimulus would change their political views to vote in a specific way.

So from a piece of code dropped on a website, to a quiz designed to give you information to the course of an election being changed.

Sadly, we’re all complicit, because we’ve all been to websites which has the code on. We’ve all contributed to the data that Facebook has collected on us. Whether we took part in the quiz or not.

You think that Facebook is still free? For me, the price tag is getting too expensive.

What did I just read?

Yeah, I know. It’s a little shocking. I’ll let you in on a little secret, once upon a time, I thought it was quite cool to have access to all that data and the things you could do with it. I was, however, thinking of the perspective of how it could be used to make your lives easier.

Had I realised at the time what would be done with the data I would have freaked out. It’s unethical in my mind. There should be a great deal of regulation around that kind of data collection and usage.

I’ve made my career out of technology. So you can be pretty sure that if someone who’s worked in tech her whole adult life is saying its out of control and needs to be regulated, it should be.

There are things you can do. I do however need you to know how your data is collected, so I’m going to cover that in the next post. The last post in the series will be some steps you can take to take control of your data and stop any more from being collected.

I am also working on a webinar to show in realtime what happens. If this is something you’re interested in, please sign-up to my newsletter below. I’ll be sharing info with my subscribers first.


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