In today's data-driven world, we are both consumers and data generators. Whenever we browse the internet, use social media, fill out an application, or sign up for a newsletter, we leave behind a data trail, much like a car's exhaust. This data, often called 'digital exhaust,' has become a critical resource for companies in various sectors, from tech and retail to advertising. This article aims to delve into digital exhaust, how individuals unknowingly leave a trail of their information everywhere they go, and how these websites share this data with data brokers and advertisers daily.

Understanding Digital Exhaust

Digital exhaust refers to the data trail left behind by users as they navigate the digital world. This trail includes everything from search history, location data, social media activity to device information and more. In essence, digital exhaust encompasses all the data you generate passively while interacting with digital services.

Digital exhaust is often unstructured and requires sophisticated tools and techniques for collection and analysis. This data is precious for companies, as it provides deep insights into user behavior, preferences, and habits, enabling them to personalize their services, predict trends, and make data-informed decisions.

The Unwitting Provision of Data

Most people are unaware of the extent of data they provide while using digital services, often without explicit consent. This happens primarily due to the complex and opaque nature of data collection practices in the digital sphere.

When you visit a website, you'll likely be greeted with a prompt asking you to accept their cookie policy. Cookies are small files placed on your device that track your behavior on the website. While their initial purpose was to enhance user experience, they have evolved to play a crucial role in data collection. Cookies allow websites to gather data on browsing habits, such as the pages you visit, the items you add to your cart, and the amount of time you spend on the website.

Moreover, websites often contain hidden components, such as pixels and tags, that collect data and send it to third parties. This is usually done under the guise of improving user experience or providing personalized content, but the reality is more complex. While you might consent to a website's cookies policy (often because the website is virtually unusable otherwise), you're rarely allowed to choose who else can access this data.

One additional note is that while the data collection may seem anonymous. In aggregate, the data points these websites collect and sell can often be linked back to you, specifically through browser fingerprinting. (If you want to learn more about this technique, we have included a link to our article on this topic below)

The Role of Publisher Websites

Publisher websites, which include news sites, product review sites, sweepstakes sites, blogs, and e-commerce platforms, often share data with third-party data brokers. The relationship between publishers, ad networks, and data brokers is symbiotic. Publishers provide ad networks and data brokers with a rich stream of user data; in return, these companies help publishers generate revenue. 

When you visit a publisher's website, it places a cookie on your device that records your activity. The data collected, and your IP address (which can give away your approximate location) is sent to an ad network. This process often happens in real-time through a process known as Real-Time Bidding (RTB). In RTB, an auction for an ad space on a publisher's website is initiated the moment a user visits the website. Companies bid on this ad space, with the winning bidder getting to display their ad. The ad networks use the data from the publisher to decide which ad to display, aiming to provide a personalized ad experience.

Additionally, many publisher websites will ask you to sign up for a free account or newsletter to get information such as your name, email address, and phone number. This information is gold, which they monetize through redistribution to data brokers, who will pay for personal information. An example would be signing up for a free website with information and resources for expecting parents. After this information is passed to a data broker, they could include the emails in a list for companies looking to market their products to expecting parents. 

The Role of Data Brokers

Data brokers are companies that collect, analyze, and sell personal data. They often work behind the scenes, amassing vast amounts of data from various sources, including publisher websites. They collect this data, analyze it, and build comprehensive user profiles. A few examples of primary data brokers are Transunion, Epsilon, Tower Data, Corelogic, Experian, and Oracle. 

What can you do to protect yourself? 

You can take precautions such as opting out of 3rd party cookies in your browser settings and using reputable VPNs to help anonymize your browsing activity. Additionally, for information that is already exposed, you can use data removal and monitoring companies like DataSeal, which will remove your information from people search websites and data brokers. 

Additional resources 

Article on browser fingerprinting mentioned in this article - Umasking digital tracking

Free scan to see how much of your personal information is exposed by data brokers and people search networks with one search - Databroker Exposure Scan

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