Johannesburg - It’s no coincidence, when you have been Googling Southeast Asia, to find later that your Facebook page is populated with ads for holidays in Thailand.
Neither is it a sign from the retail gods that you need to buy THAT pair of shoes that you’ve browsed once, when its image keeps popping up on your social media accounts.
It’s not that you’ve been cyberstalked, but the practice of retargeting - using your internet browsing habits to track your preferences - is widely used by companies to send you advertisements of products and services you have Googled.
“Pixels embedded within an advertising slot on a web page can access cookies previously dropped on to your computer by the advertiser. These cookies give the advertiser information about previous searches and browsing habits, enabling the advertiser to target your preferences.”
Isaacs says whether this is an invasion of privacy depends on one’s point of view.
“Services which obtain this information about you would argue that you have consented to it. You aren’t forced to use the service after all. Their privacy policies invariably explain what they do, at least in general terms,” he says.
Nathan Desfontaines, cyber security manager at KPMG, agrees.
“Privacy policies are loosely explained. Websites tell us that they are using cookies and give us an option to opt out by disabling cookies. But doing that means some features of a website may not work.”
Desfontaines also agrees that retargeting is not illegal. “But the problem is that we are not given an option to decide if we want to opt in.”
And for that reason, he says, this practice tests ethical borders and has the potential to embarrass users.
“If a woman thinks she is pregnant, for example, and Googles contraceptives or abortion and then moves away from her desk, then when these adverts pop up on her screen everyone can see what she’s been browsing,” Desfontaines says.
“By using Google to browse the Net you have automatically opted to be tracked if you already use other Google unpaid services such as Gmail, Google Maps and Google Drive,” he says.
“To access many of these services you need to log into a Google account. And as long as you’re logged in, Google knows exactly who you are and mines everything you are doing within the Google environment for information about you,” Isaacs says.