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Feature Story In Amsterdam Newspaper

Why you shouldn't just always accept cookies: 'We don't realize what's happening' 

Imagine that we are followed everywhere on the street. Where we go, who we talk to, what we say, what we watch, what we buy, what we like...

Everything is tracked and stored. We wouldn't want to live in such a country. But replace the words 'on the street' with 'online' and it is everyday practice. “It's called tracking. And tracking is a nice word for something ugly: permanent surveillance,” says Bob Hoffman. “By the time a child turns 13, tech companies have collected an average of 72 million pieces of information about that child.” Bob Hoffman is a friendly seventies in sneakers. He once ran two advertising agencies in California and now maintains a widely read blog, writes books and addresses conferences. Parliaments too. After the British House of Commons, he spoke in the European Parliament last month. At the invitation of Paul Tang (PvdA), who had organized a hearing with experts to gain a better understanding of the dangers that threaten our democracy online. Hoffman does not invent anything himself, he draws from public sources. For example, that figure of "72 million pieces of information" comes from SuperAwesome, a London-based company that helps app developers comply with children's rights. The research is often cited. What he says is not new either. Every marketer knows roughly how it works. Every internet user thinks they know how it works. And in any case, he experiences how it works. If you are chatting with your friends about your first marathon, advertisements for all-inclusive running trips will appear in your timeline. How is that possible? No, there's no evidence that your phone's microphone is being secretly turned on and you're being eavesdropped on, says Hoffman. Intelligence services do, but that's another story. “Advertisers don't need eavesdropping at all. By following your online behavior 24 hours a day, they know enough.” If you want to understand what is happening, it is best to start at the beginning: with advertising. Traditionally it worked like this: a company buys a page in the newspaper and then the readers see that advertisement. With online advertising, an advertiser usually no longer buys a place, but a type of person. People who like to run, for example. Or more specifically: people in their 50s who run. Or rather: 50- year-old runners who book expensive holidays and text their friends about a marathon. These are interesting for a provider of fully catered walking holidays. Finding those people is not something an advertiser does himself, services such as Google Adwords, Facebook Custom Audiences or Microsoft Bing Ads do that for him. Indeed, the big tech companies are dominant here. A travel organization then buys, for example, 100,000 'impressions' (times the advertisement is viewed), whether or not in a specific target group. And software ensures that that space is automatically purchased within microseconds on the website where someone from that target group is currently located. Finding and bundling target groups, such as runners in their fifties with money, is possible thanks to cookies. Small text files that a website places on your computer or mobile phone when you visit that site. Thanks to cookies, a website can see what you click on, and therefore what you are obviously interested in. And recognize you on your next visit. Handy: you don't have to log in every time. A website always places these so-called functional and analytical cookies without asking permission. But there are also other cookies. (Did we mention this topic is technical and abstract?) Like cookies that track you not just on that one website, but on all the websites you view, all over the internet. They report that back to that first website, so that it can offer you an even better 'user experience'. You must first give permission for those cookies: via that screen that pops up when you visit a website for the first time. Most people click it away as quickly as possible: 'accept all'. And then there are cookies from 'cooperating parties': websites that you do not visit at all, but which still like to keep track of everything you do on the internet in order to be able to serve you advertisements somewhere. That is why they pay that first website to be allowed to place their cookies there. You must also give permission for this. But you just did that with that "accept all". So far it sounds complicated, but not necessarily harmful. Many people are quite okay with getting ads that suit them. Although it may feel strange: ads for baby clothes if you haven't let anyone know you're pregnant yet. But maybe you've been looking for girl names. Well, does it matter? Most people have nothing to hide, right? “We all have something to hide,” says Hoffman. "We just don't know what it is yet." Just look, he says, at the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion last June. As a result, termination of pregnancy became a criminal offense in a number of US states. That same month, at the request of the Nebraska police, Facebook provided chat messages between a pregnant 17-year-old girl and her mother who were searching online for abortion pills. The girl is now being prosecuted for illegal pregnancy interruption. Exceptional? According to its own figures, Google alone received more than 150,000 government requests for access to user data in the first half of 2021. Also in the Netherlands: 771 times. In three-quarters of the cases, the tech company also provides. We might consider that normal when it comes to data from serious criminals. But what is "heavy"? “Governments change, laws change,” says Hoffman. “Things that are perfectly legal today may be illegal over time. What is fun to say today can suddenly be dangerous next year.” We already know the latter a bit when old tweets from a famous person pop up, but Hoffman means it even more seriously. “The most terrible governments in world history were those that knew the most about their citizens. Who followed them everywhere, kept files on them. Well, the Gestapo, the Stasi and the KGB could only dream of the information that tech companies now have.” The funny thing is: we would never accept something like that from a government. When a Chinese company collects information, we suddenly find it a security risk as well. Officials in the US, Canada and the European Commission were ordered to remove the TikTok app from their phones last month. Dutch civil servants were urgently advised to do the same last week. But our own western companies? “We don't realize what is happening,” says Hoffman. “It is also much too complicated for most people.” We need not be offended by that last sentence. “Almost nobody knows how the technology behind it works,” said Amsterdam scientist Tom Dobber during the hearing. Not even the advertising companies themselves. The American Association of Advertisers estimates that by 2022 no less than $ 100 billion will be lost because the advertisements were placed on fake websites and fake profiles. Built by scammers to collect advertising money. So fraud. How is that possible again? Well, a page in the newspaper: everyone sees that advertisement. But those 100,000 impressions? Who says these are real persons? Any aspiring programmer can write a program – a robot, or bot for short – that performs tasks automatically, explained Johnny Ryan, a researcher at the University of Dublin, at the hearing. Such a bot first goes to a well-regarded news site and clicks on messages there, thus building a 'quality profile'. The bot then 'views' messages about cars. Now we have an interesting quality profile for an advertiser like BMW! The only drawback is that this potential customer will never buy a car. Technical and abstract, indeed. But hey, this is still about ads. And unless you live in Nebraska and you look for ads about abortion pills, you can still say, what's the big deal? Bob Hoffman doesn't sigh. He is used to these kinds of questions because really: most people, including CEOs, know little about it, he says. But thanks to tracking cookies, we do not only see advertisements that suit us. No, social media is about all the information that we receive. How about that? Actually, you should put this article away for a while and sit next to someone else and then both open Facebook. What you see is nothing like what the other person sees. Or try Google, because that program also takes into account what we've looked up before, where we are located and whether a site pays to be found first. If you both type in the same search term, you will still get different results. Google is super handy, but it is not a modern version of the encyclopedia. "And that's because Facebook and Google, with the help of the information that cookies have collected, know very well what you are likely to find interesting," says Hoffman. And that's exactly what they're trying to feed you, because they want to hold you. The longer, the more opportunity to sell ads. That is their business model.” Information that continues to fascinate us, how bad is that? A football fan likes to watch football, right? Yes, says Hoffman. But no more hockey because of that. And translate that into social issues. “We no longer get to see the whole world, but only our view of the world. We are each led to "echo pits" (rabbit holes is the English term) in which we each hear only what each of us likes. And it's like with drugs: you have to go a little bit further. Thus we are tempted with increasingly radical versions of our own points of view.” And that drives wedges in society. “There was a time when liberals and conservatives could still be friends. Now everything is a shouting match.Historians will later wonder how it could have happened that tracking cookies could sow so much division in our time.” But wait, why does it always have to be more extreme in the negative? Don't people long for love, for harmony? "Yes, they say that, but unfortunately what people say and what people do are not always the same," said Hoffman. "It's human nature, I'm afraid." Several studies show that negative or untrue posts attract about six times more attention than upbeat or right posts. What to do? The Internet does not respect national borders and is difficult to regulate nationally - unless you exclude sites with a large 'firewall' and have the rest reported to the government, as China does. In the Western world, the European Union is the furthest with legislation. For example, since 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation has been in force in all 27 EU countries: companies, governments and other organizations must inform citizens how their data is collected and processed. “Unfortunately, it is mainly symptomatic treatment,” says Hoffman. "The rules on transparency have led to pop-up screens where you give permission with one click for terms of use that are longer than the US Constitution." If you're starting to find Bob Hoffman annoying, put it to the test and read Facebook's terms of service and privacy statement yourself. Easy to find online. They are indeed very long, but it is all there: “We collect and receive information from and about the various devices you use and how you use them. The device information we collect and receive includes what you do on your device. (...) We also collect your contacts' information, such as their name and email address or phone number, if you choose to upload or import it from a device, for example by syncing an address book. (...) "When you use our products, we collect certain information about you, even if you don't have an account." And with that Facebook complies with the law. For Bob Hoffman, there is one way out: ban tracking. And then in any case the tracking by sites other than the ones you visit yourself. “It's great that my favorite news site has a direct relationship with me. If they need my email address and zip code for that, okay, that's customer contact. But that data doesn't have to go all over the internet.”

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