How does Instagram track your Google Searches?

As personal, internet-connected devices become more ubiquitous in developed countries, companies are getting more skilled in predicting user behavior. Companies, such as Instagram, have gotten so skilled that their personalized recommendations are sometimes eerie. Most people that I have talked to have experienced very targeted ads, often wondering how that company gained access to information on their particular interests.

How it worked historically

Until recently, the cookie was king. An internet cookie is simply a small packet of data that gets left on every internet page that you visit. You may have wondered how Instagram gained access to your Google Searches in order to learn about a particular interest. It is not actually Google who necessarily shared that information. Most likely, it is either the website that has shared that data with third-parties that then sold it to other companies, such as Instagram, or Instagram that has an agreement with the website directly to collect that information.

With more and more consumers concerned about their online privacy, stricter laws have been put in place in some countries, most notably in the European Union. With the passing of GDPR in the European Union, websites must now ask visitors specifically which data they would like to share with the websites. Due to this regulations, estimates of users opting out ranges from around 10% to around 40%. While these opt-out rates are not as drastic as marketers feared, the regulation fueled the development of other forms of user tracking and reconciliation.

How it has evolved

Earlier this year, I was looking to buy a new phone so I researched the topic quite a bit on my computer and talked about it on the phone with my sister. Even though I was not signed in to any social media site or email while searching, a couple days later, I found multiple ads for the phones that I had searched for on my Instagram feed. While I was at first worried that my phone was listening to me, it seems more likely that the data collected was simply matched based on my WiFi’s IP address.

So to answer the question : it doesn’t. Instagram has either collected your data thanks to a cookie, to your IP address or through another means of data reconciliation. Personally, I feel like the IP address represents a higher breach of privacy as that is personally identifiable information that the consumer did not explicitly provide to the website. It is also much more difficult to mask that information than it is to delete one’s cookies.

What is your point of view? At what point are publisher’s going too far? Would you prefer to pay for access to websites instead of paying with your personal data?

PS While researching, I found this article on a lady who received similar recommendations to her friend because Instagram had determined based on location data that they knew each other and are in the same demographic, which I thought was rather interesting.


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