Could a More Powerful Web Tracker Be Good for Your Privacy?
Last week on Zoom, where I spend all the best moments of my life, I spoke with the chief product office of an ad tech company called Full Throttle. Amol Waishampayan said his company has a brand-new patented technique that will let companies collect even more of your data—ten times more data, he claims—and tie that information to your home address. He said Full Throttle won’t collect the information without your consent, but he expects a lot of us will give it up willingly. Waishampayan said this tracking will actually be better for your privacy, and in fact, you might even like it. By the time I closed my laptop I was almost convinced. Almost.
Maybe you heard the news: Google is planning to kill third-party cookies, the primary tool advertising and tech companies have used to track you online for 30 years. The ad business is, to say the least, freaking out. On ad tech Twitter, the land that God forgot, people throw around ideas for cookie-replacements with names like data clean rooms, Unified ID 2.0, and email hashed IDs. Microsoft is pushing a cute little tool called “Parakeet.” Google, which swears it’s killing cookies to protect your privacy and not to exert dominance over the market, will now track and harness your data with something called the Topics API.
“The way the internet used to work was a good deal, for us, because we got to use all your data. But things are changing, and that’s a good thing. Waishampayan said.
Waishampayan said the difference is that his company’s tracker helps a company harvest data on its own customers rather than buying that data from third-party sellers, which are less reliable and less accurate—not to mention worse for your privacy.
“We’re not a data broker, we never get to use any of the data our tools collect. What we’re doing is helping brands become data-independent,” Waishampayan said. “We’re turning brands into first-party data farmers, rather than letting them scavenge around looking for third-party data.”
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Here’s how it works. A company puts Full Throttle’s tracking tool on its website. After you’ve given your consent (in theory) the tool collects about 12 to 14 data points about you, things like what browser you’re using, what device you’re on, your location data, if it’s available, and ETag information, a unique piece of data stored in your browsers’ cache. Then, the company runs an analysis and compares the results to a public US Postal Service database to find your home address.
If you’re playing along at home, you’ll notice that this sounds a lot like fingerprinting, the name for a technique which identifies you using a number of persistent like details about your browser, device, and location to get around privacy protections.
But Waishampayan says this isn’t fingerprinting, because even if it uses the same technique, fingerprinting is a term that refers to surreptitious tracking that happens without your consent or even against your will. Full Throttle only wants its tool operating when companies have explicit permission to track you. That’s a big “if.” It’s up to the companies to make sure they’re handling consent the right way, though, and as multiple reports have shown, it seems like most companies aren’t.
There are a few advantages here, though. First is that the data Full Throttle is harvesting is consistent: the non-fingerprinting fingerprinting technique relies on data that rarely changes, and your address, which changes even less often. That differs from cookies or other trackers that can be cleared or blocked by your browser. It also lets companies identify you without making you login, which turns away a lot of users. “We evangelize and advocate for consent, and we’re not going to partner with someone who abuses our technology,” Waishampayan said.
Some browsers like Firefox and Safari already let you block cookies, and as a result, some estimates suggest that only 30% of site visitors on the open web are addressable, ad-industry speak for someone you can follow around and target with ads. That’s going to get a lot worse when (and if) Google kills the third-party cookie, as Google Chrom is the world’s most popular browser. Whether or not Full Throttle’s tool is adopted at any wide scale, rest assured that somebody is going to come up with a reliable way to track you online. But Full Throttle is making inroads, the company says it counts Ford and iHeartMedia among its clients.
So how is any of this good for your privacy? Great question! On a fundamental level, it’s not. There is a little nuance to think about, though.
Ironically, a lot of the privacy moves we’ve seem from regulators and big tech platforms are encouraging more companies to track you. Apple started making apps ask permission before they track you, Google says it’s killing the cookie, and laws like GDPR and California’s CCPA are forcing companies to think more carefully about consent. That’s cut off the flow of a lot of data, which hurts the giant ad networks like Google and Meta, which rely on third party data collection to varying degrees.
As a result, there’s an opportunity for companies who have a ton of their own customers to start their own advertising business. And lately, it seems like every company on earth has. You can now place an ad through every business from Disney to Kroger To Marriott.
So, if you like privacy, that’s bad. But Waishampayan says there’s an upside. As companies build up their own private ad systems, it makes your data a more precious commodity that they’re less likely to share.
“There’s technically more data collection by more entities happening directly as a result of all the privacy changes we’re seeing. But the decentralization of that data is a good thing,” Waishampayan said. “There will still be alot of independent people who can do bad things with data, but the reach of their damage is limited because the data sets are smaller and less detailed.” He paused. “Unless they’re selling data to a data broker.”
I talk to a lot of people in advertising, and usually when I talk to them about privacy concerns, I get the same set of stock answers that feel pretty disingenuous, to put it mildly. Waishampayan was more forthcoming than most ad guys that get on Zoom with me, though the particular corner of the internet where Full Throttle sits probably lets him be more open than he might be otherwise.
“There’s a subsection of privacy hardliners who are going to say no to any kind of tracking. And they should be able to, though that’s a challenge for our industry in some respects because to get real consent we have to make things understandable, and it’s a complex topic.”
But, fortunately for Waishampayan and his colleagues, there’s a value exchange that advertising fans always like to talk about: you give me your data, and you get something free or discounted in return. It’s not a fair trade, however, if there are a bunch of risks and threats to data harvesting that aren’t spelled out in privacy policies. But Waishampayan is hopeful that the consent issue is a solvable problem.
“I think the only thing we can control is how data is collected. There’s an equilibrium, and as brands get better at explaining their systems and making real, valuable offers, we’re going to see more people opting-in,” he said.
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