The Role of Metadata in Online Privacy

Online Privacy
Online Privacy

The concept of what is metadata can be challenging to grasp. Its definition covers any sort of data that describes other data. But what exactly does that mean?

It’s easiest to look at an example. Let’s say you’ve just created a new document in Microsoft Word. That file represents a piece of data, and it has a range of metadata criteria which describe. These include the file’s size, its word count, the modification date, and the name of the user who created it.

Metadata information is critical for allowing computer systems to accurately store and organize the files that users create. But when you shift the conversation to the internet space, metadata takes on a whole new level of importance.

Read on to discover how metadata is used by websites and mobile applications, and what it all means for your privacy online.

Introduction to Browser Cookies

Whenever you launch a web browser like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox and enter a URL address, your physical computer begins communicating directly with the website’s server. But in order to keep your online experience consistent, certain local storage is added to the browser’s memory.

This is primarily done through a function called browser cookies. Website developers have the ability to add metadata files to a user’s browser when they first navigate to the URL. These cookies are kept even after the browser application is closed so that the website will recognize the user during their next visit.

The key concept here is the value of a persistent session. Metadata cookies are most often used to allow people to stay logged in to a website over an extended period of time. Anytime you’ve ever clicked a “Remember Me” button on a website, that’s created a new cookie file in your browser that’s linked to your session credentials.

In addition to cookies, each page load within a browser can often spawn hundreds of different pieces of metadata information. Most of this is for legitimate purposes, specifically the gathering of site analytics, which allows website owners to monitor their traffic levels and performance.

A lot of analytics metadata is captured through JavaScript code. When you open a website in your browser, invisible JavaScript will be run to log information about your session into a separate database like Google Analytics. The metadata gathered will include your IP address, browser type, session time, entry page, and exit page.

You might think this analytical metadata has no connection to the internet privacy debate, but in fact, it can often reveal a lot of information that you wouldn’t expect. For example, your IP address is assigned by your internet service provider (ISP) and can be traced to a city and sometimes even your block or street. Websites gather this information without you even realizing it was available in the first place.

Another key piece of metadata that websites track is your referral source, which identifies the way you navigated to the URL. Referrals are grouped into several categories: direct traffic, search results, external links, and social networks. Companies like to track these groupings over time to understand how people behave on a website based on the method they used to find it.

The Advertising Factor

So what exactly is the point of gathering metadata through methods like browser cookies, site analytics, and link tracking? Like the rest of the business world, money is the driving factor. Internet usage information can be translated into cash thanks to the billion-dollar online advertising industry.

When a company pays for a full-page advertisement in a print magazine, they may get to find out the number of subscriptions and issues that were sold, but they have no idea how many people actually read the advertisement and how many of those people then bought the product it was promoting. The internet has radically changed this entire scenario.

Now when a company places an online advertisement, they receive real-time metrics that tells them how many views and clicks it receives and how that traffic translates into future sales. Thanks to metadata gathering, advertising platforms can also pinpoint user locations and provide other demographic information.

In a perfect world, you would be able to trust advertisers and companies to use your metadata in only appropriate ways. The most common method is targeted advertising, where users online see more relevant ads that are based on their previous browsing activity and interests. For example, if you run a Google search for winter hiking boots, you might later see a related ad for this product on Facebook or Twitter.

The danger with advertising metadata is all of the unknowns. When a website places a cookie on your web browser, it gives them the ability to track every movement you make across the internet and store the information on their own databases. This can later be sold for nefarious purposes and violate your privacy in a number of ways.

VPN’s and Encryption Methods

You might be wondering whether there’s any way to be truly anonymous online anymore. As a short-term measure, you can manually clear your browser cookies or use a tool like Chrome incognito mode to halt metadata tracking. But even those options can be ineffective, especially when your IP address can tell an advertiser or web host so much information about you.

Whenever you hear about a major data breach or privacy scandal in the news, experts will advise that people look into virtual private network (VPN) solutions for a very good reason. When you connect to a VPN from your home computer or mobile devices, all of your web traffic is filtered through a tunnel rather than being transmitted directly to your ISP.

Best of all, VPN data is encrypted from end to end, which means that even if a hacker or outside group manages to intercept your metadata, they will be unable to parse it into anything usable. Your IP address will essentially be anonymous and cannot be traced back to your physical location.

Of course, a VPN solution is only effective if you can trust the provider hosting the encrypted network. VPN companies themselves can store metadata logs and track how their users are behaving on the web. Before investing in a VPN client, make sure to do your research and find one that treats its users anonymously.

The Right to Privacy

As an internet user, don’t assume you are powerless when it comes to metadata tracking and online privacy. You have the right to protect your identity and the activity you perform on websites.

Slowly, governments and other institutions are coming to an agreement on this matter. The European Union recently put new legislation into place that enforces how websites can track users. The key change is in regards to communication of data retention policies.

Whenever you visit a new website, you should be able to easily find out how your private metadata will be used and how long it will be stored. Websites should also operate with an opt-in approach and not track you with cookies or analytics until you have explicitly provided your consent.

About The Author-
The article is submitted by Christopher Nichols, he has always enjoyed using new technology advancements to scale marketing efforts. He believes in data-driven marketing and in practices it in his agency, Strictly Digital. 

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