Every time you buy an item online, share a hilarious meme, or just make a simple search, your information is being stored, tracked, and circulated. Most people probably wouldn’t care or give it much thought, but one’s data can end up in a lot of unexpected places.
“People don’t always know their info is being sold at real-time,” says Ahmad Bashir, a fifth-year doctoral student at Northeastern University who has spent five years studying the online advertising market. “The system needs to be more transparent, and the users should be aware of what is happening with their data.”
Bashir says that when users visit a website, such as Amazon or Google, little bits of information called “cookies” are taken by the website to identify them. Cookies make it so users don’t need to log in to their favorite websites every time they visit it. Many internet users know all this by now. But this tracking does not just happen when you are on a particular site, but occurs the whole time you are browsing. Bahir says that websites build portfolios of their visitors based on, say, the items that they purchase or add to their online shopping carts.
“All this data is very valuable to advertisers, who don’t hesitate to sell it to the highest paying bidder. In a process known as real-time bidding,” says Bashir, “advertisers are constantly competing against each other to flaunt their products and services on your screen.”
He recently co-authored a paper on this topic with Northeastern professor Christo Wilson titled Diffusion of User Tracking Data in the Online Advertising Ecosystem. Bashir and Wilson traveled to Washington DC, in February 2019 to accept an award at the Future of Privacy Forum, an event for advocates of cybersecurity and privacy issues, and to share their work with policymakers and privacy experts. “This feels special because you can see your work shaping real impact,” says Bashir. “Eventually this paper will be distributed through D.C. and help close the gap between academia and policymakers and make online advertising more transparent.”