You Can’t Escape Data Exhaust, but you can Understand it.

Valerie Makanda

Almost everything you do online generates data. It presents marketers an opportunity to profile you by tracking all your online movements and unless you resolve to quit the internet, there isn’t much you can do to keep it from happening.

Try accessing a website without being asked to accept the use of cookies on your device. Nearly impossible. Very few websites allow you to browse through their content without having these little nuggets track your every movement and despite asking for your permission to do so, your acquiescence is implied. These cookies fall into a category of data called data exhaust. Put simply, data exhaust is byproduct data. While byproduct data in this case may be the result of online activity, this concept is not unique to the internet. It’s everywhere.

If you’ve ever taken the Underground in London you’ve probably made use of an Oyster card, which you load with money and then use to tap yourself in and out of tube stations while travelling. That activity, “the tapping in and out”, also generates byproduct data which enables Transport for London to optimize their service. With that data, they can see thousands of journeys and easily identify patterns and develop strategies to improve their service.

You Are Your Own Worst Enemy

Data exhaust matters mainly because it is now a lucrative source of information to be used by marketers and researchers. I remember desperately needing to find accommodation in Paris for a 1 week stay. I was Googling frantically for a solid hour until I took a break. It didn’t matter where I went on the web, was right there to make sure I knew to come back and book the room on which I had lingered. This is because cookies are able to store data about your online activity. In this case, left cookies on my computer the second I landed on their page and began collating information about my activity and relaying it to their own servers. The cookies enabled them to learn that I was looking for a hotel room in Paris, my travel dates, my price range, and my preferred areas. Because they had enough information to determine that I was a potential customer, objectively speaking, it would be foolish not to placard my side panes with ads.
Access to internet is now qualified as a human right and almost every time you exercise that right, you are arming someone with information they can use to sell to you. You have very little control over how this information is being analyzed or how you’re being profiled. An image of you is being formed right under your nose with only your implied consent, and you can’t do very much to keep it from happening. Your online activity is like a footprint. In the eyes of the marketers you are what you search in a sense. Ate something funky and now you’re googling your symptoms to rule out cancer? The cookies know. Cookies are basically a tool marketers use to get you to snitch on yourself. Then they capitalize.

Are Cookies Harmful or Helpful?

Consulting a web page is akin to signing a pact with the devil. Information is very much a two-way street thanks to fat cats who are willing to pay a pretty penny to get to know you, your budget, your favorite foods, and your next vacation destination. Put simply, your activity becomes a commodity and your privacy is consequently jeopardized. In some cases, your browsing history and search history are also fair game. I personally google everything from my salary after tax to what a herpes sore looks like (I’m a hypochondriac). Much like me, you very reasonably believe that both of these searches and everything in between are your business and nobody else’s. Wrong. Even security agencies such as the NSA can get in on the action and use cookies, already stored on your device, for surveillance.

The most frustrating thing about cookies is that they’re not going away because they also serve a purpose. Cookies know who you are. They don’t know you by name, but they do know you to be an “individual” which is why you don’t have to sign into your Netflix account every time you decide to watch a movie or a show. Your browser links the cookie to the website when you return to that website because the cookie, having stored your preferences, knows to grant you access via your account. In that respect, it acts much in the same way as the key card which enables you to enter your office or apartment complex.

Imagine shopping online without cookies for a moment. You’re on the Zara landing page, and you’ve made your way to the left pane to have a look at the coats. You find one you like and add it to your bag. You want to look at their trousers now so you navigate on the left pane once more, find something you like and add it to your bag. After lingering on few items you finish up and head for the checkout page. If it weren’t for cookies, your bag would be empty because at no point were you asked to log in or identify yourself in any way. The website has no way of knowing you are you! Cookies make it so that every page on the website knows you’re you. Cookies tell the machine that you’re you whether or not you’ve logged in with a password, and online shopping without them would be a very frustrating experience.

Protect Your Privacy on the Web

There are a few things you can do keep some semblance of control and privacy. First, mess with the data. The infrastructure is already there. Nobody is doing away with cookies, and as explained above, they have their benefits. If you don’t want your search history flashing across your screen in the form of ads, modify your online behavior. This is probably the single best thing you can do but you do have to be fairly consistent. I like to search travel destinations I plan on visiting never.

The most obvious solution is of course to clear your cookies. This is something you can do periodically and if you’re really curious, prior to deleting them you can see each individual cookie and potentially track its source. What you find might surprise you. Final option: go off the grid for sensitive searches. If you have a Google Chrome browser you can always browse in incognito mode however this may not be as secure as it is made to seem in that your internet service provider can still view your internet activity… and so can the NSA. Incognito prevents cookies from tracking your activity in that specific browser, and it doesn’t record your activity in that same browser in your history. If you really want to keep your online activity discreet, you should look into VPN, which actually masks your IP address, or download Tor which also disguises your identity.

Data exhaust is being touted as a source for evolution in the business world. While I’ve focused on only byproduct data as gathered by cookies, there are various other forms of such data. It’s not the worst thing in the world but it can be intrusive, and in most cases it’s definitely unwanted.

It’s weird new-age digital voyeurism and you need to understand it.