Online platforms like Facebook can track and store people’s internet activities even if they don’t use the social web services themselves. That has one study uncoveredconducted by researchers from the Firms and Markets Department of the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW Berlin) together with scientists from the Universities of Zurich, Lausanne and Yale. To do this, the researchers calculated what data Facebook could theoretically access and store based on the internet usage behavior of nearly 5,000 people. Their result: Facebook knows more than half of the websites visited by the test subjects.
“Even the internet activity of people who are not registered on the platforms themselves can be observed,” said Hannes Ullrich, a researcher in the Business and Markets Department of the DIW. “Comparing data from registrants also allows consumer profiles to be created about them, which the platforms or third parties can use for targeted advertising.”
Such profiles are so interesting because Facebook can use them to sell advertisers much more precise information about the interests and needs of potential customers. “These practices have been identified by other studies, but this study is the first to quantify what proportion of actual Internet activity can be observed and how the data collected can be used,” the researchers said.
However, it is difficult to say to what extent Facebook & Co. use such practices. “Because the companies provide hardly any information about which algorithms they use, no one can say for sure what data is actually stored and used,” explains Ullrich. However, the most recent study proves that the major online platforms have the technical foundation to monitor and allocate much of the internet activity to specific people or groups of people.
The DIW man is therefore arguing for better equipment for the supervisors. From Ullrich’s point of view, another way out of the data protection dilemma could be independent data controllers who collect data with the express consent of the user and pass it on to advertisers according to transparent guidelines.