CNA/THE NEW YORK TIMES – When you browse the web, an increasing number of sites and apps are asking for a piece of basic information that you probably hand over without hesitation. Your e-mail address.
It may seem harmless, but when you enter your e-mail, you’re sharing a lot more than just that. I’m hoping this column, which includes some workarounds, persuades you to think twice before handing over your e-mail address. First, it helps to know why companies want email addresses.
To advertisers, web publishers and app makers, your e-mail is important not just for contacting you. It acts as a digital breadcrumb for companies to link your activity across sites and apps to serve you relevant ads.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. For decades, the digital advertising industry relied on invisible trackers planted inside websites and apps to follow our activities and then serve us targetted ads.
There have been sweeping changes to this system in the past few years, including Apple’s release of a software featured in 2021 allowing iPhone users to block apps from tracking them and Google’s decision to prevent websites from using cookies, which follow people’s activities across sites, in its Chrome browser by 2024.
Advertisers, web publishers and app makers now try to track people through other means and one simple method is by asking for an e-mail address. Imagine if an employee of a brick-and-mortar store asked for your name before you entered. An e-mail address can be even more revealing, though, because it can be linked to other data, including where you went to school, the make and model of the car you drive and your ethnicity.
“I can take your e-mail address and find data you may not have even realised you’ve given to a brand,” said Chief Executive Officer Michael Priem of Modern Impact, an advertising firm in Minneapolis. Advertising tech is continuing to evolve, so it helps to understand what exactly you’re sharing when you enter in an e-mail address. From there, you can decide what to do.
For many years, the digital ad industry has compiled a profile on you based on the sites you visit on the web. Information about you used to be collected in covert ways, including the aforementioned cookies and invisible trackers planted inside apps.
A POTENT PIECE OF DATA
Now that more companies are blocking the use of those methods, new ad targetting techniques have emerged.
One technology that is gaining traction is an advertising framework called Unified ID 2.0, or UID 2.0, which was developed by the Trade Desk, an ad-technology company in Ventura, California. Say, for example, you are shopping on a sneaker website using UID 2.0 when a prompt pops up and asks you to share your e-mail address and agree to receive relevant advertising. Once you enter your e-mail, UID 2.0 transforms it into a token composed of a string of digits and characters.
That token travels with your e-mail address when you use it to log in to a sports streaming app on your television that uses UID 2.0.
Advertisers can link the two accounts together based on the token, and they can target you with sneaker ads on the sports streaming app because they know you visited the sneaker website. Since your e-mail address is not revealed to the advertiser, UID 2.0 may be seen as a step up for consumers from traditional cookie-based tracking, which gives advertisers access to your detailed browsing history and personal information.
However, in an analysis, Mozilla, the nonprofit that makes the Firefox web browser, called UID 2.0 a “regression in privacy” because it enabled the type of tracking behaviour that modern web browsers were designed to prevent. There are simpler ways for websites and apps to track your web activity through your e-mail address. An e-mail could contain your first and last name, and assuming you’ve used it for some time, data brokers have already compiled a comprehensive profile on your interests based on your browsing activity. A website or an app can upload your e-mail address into an ad broker’s database to match your identity with a profile containing enough insights to serve you targetted ads. The bottom line is that if you’re wondering why you are continuing to see relevant ads despite the rise of privacy tools that combat digital tracking, it’s largely because you are still sharing your e-mail address.
WHAT TO DO
There are various options for limiting the ability of advertising companies to target you based on your e-mail address.
Create a bunch of e-mail addresses. Each time a site or an app asks for your e-mail, you could create a unique address to log in to it. That would make it hard for ad tech companies to compile a profile based on your e-mail handle. And if you receive spam mail to a specific account, that will tell you which company is sharing your data with marketers.
Use e-mail-masking tools. Apple and Mozilla offer tools that automatically create e-mail aliases for logging in to an app or a site, e-mails sent to the aliases are forwarded to your real e-mail address.
When possible, opt out. For sites using the UID 2.0 framework for ad targetting, you can opt out by entering your e-mail address at https://transparentadvertising.org. (Not all sites that collect your e-mail address are using UID 2.0, however.)
You could also do nothing. If you enjoy receiving relevant advertising and have no privacy concerns, you can accept that sharing some information about yourself is part of the transaction for receiving content on the Internet.