Companies and data traces

This resource will help you understand how companies collect and use your data traces while showing you how to better manage your online privacy.

It can be difficult to prevent companies from collecting your data given that this is often a cost of using their services. However, you can change your online behaviour, be critical of the tools you use and utilise privacy saving tools.

What are data traces?

Data traces are bits of information you leave behind unknowingly or knowingly on the Internet. These data traces can be collected to create a "digital shadow" of you.

Why do companies collect it?

Search engines, such as Google, and social media sites such as Facebook are owned by companies that need to generate revenue. These companies collect your data to build a profile of you that they can use to target advertising.

Other companies pay Google and social media sites to advertise via their platforms and Google and social media sites choose which ads to display to you based on your digital shadow. You may have noticed if you go to a shopping website you may see items you have viewed in your social media feeds.

Most websites do not charge their users a fee to access their content. However this doesn't mean they're not collecting a lot of data to support the  advertising they direct at you.

Remember, If you don't pay for the product, you are the product!

How they do it

There are many ways that companies can collect your data traces. In this resource, we will explore two: cookies and browser fingerprints.

Cookies are:

"small text files placed on your computer by a Web server when you view some sites online ... used to store data about you and your preferences". - Lifewire

When a website remembers what you leave in your shopping cart, or pre-fills in a form with your name or address, it is using cookies to remember you.

However, third parties (from sites you've never visited) can also use cookies to track your browser history by embedding them in things like banner advertisements, which allows them to tailor their advertisements to you. 

Browser fingerprinting

"When a site you visit uses browser fingerprinting, it can learn enough information about your browser to uniquely distinguish you from all the other visitors to that site.

Browser fingerprinting can be used to track users just as cookies do, but using much more subtle and hard-to-control techniques. 

By using browser fingerprinting to piece together information about your browser and your actions online, trackers can covertly identify users over time, track them across websites, and build an advertising profile of them". - Electronic Frontier Foundation


Managing your data

Me and my Shadow recommends these simple steps to help control your data traces.

1. Change your browser settings

  • Make use of the "Do not track" option available in modern web browsers such as Firefox, Chrome and Edge.
  • Blocking 3rd-party cookies can also limit how far your data is shared (but may affect your browsing experience).
  • Private browsing lets you navigate the web without saving site information to your browser. Private browsing does not make you anonymous online. Your service provider, employer and the sites you visit can still trace your visits.

2. Use alternative tools

  • Companies like Google are convenient because they have a lot of good tools that you can use but there are alternatives out there that function just as well and don't cost you your privacy.

3. Install privacy-focused browser extensions/add-ons


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.