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Podcast: The Algorithm Behind Your Browser

“There’s always been data greed in trying to understand consumer and political behavior. It’s an ever-hungry beast that wants to understand more about you.”


Behind the scenes of this FiveThirtyEight article page, a dozen cookies and scripts are tracking you. Where you came from, who you are, where you’re thinking of going next (and how we can get you to stick around). Many of these algorithms are helping us watch our traffic, while others give marketers information about our readers’ (and listeners’) habits. It’s not just our site, of course, it’s most of the sites you visit online. Cookies and scripts have been a staple of web browsing since the first browser, but lately the ability to merge databases means that online surveillance can learn more and more about you and your habits. Here, for instance, is a look at all the cookies present on the FiveThirtyEight homepage.

A look at the various cookies running in the background of the FiveThirtyEight website, using the tool Ghostery.

A look at the various cookies running in the background of the FiveThirtyEight website, using the tool Ghostery.

What does this mean for security and privacy? Do we no longer control our internet experience, and our internet identity? Should Internet journalists make sure the public understands the trade off between consuming media online and sharing your information with marketers?

In this episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Internet security journalist and activist Quinn Norton gives a primer on online tracking and where surveillance is headed next. And she gives us a tour of FiveThirtyEight’s surveillance using the tools Ghostery and NoScript.

Plus, this week’s Significant Digit: The average YouTube viewing session on mobile is up to 40 minutes. FiveThirtyEight’s Stephanie Roos looks at the numbers.

Stream or download the full episode above, and find a video excerpt along with a partial transcript below.

And by popular request, here’s the full What’s The Point theme music by Hrishikesh Hirway:

Video: The Cookies of FiveThirtyEight

Behind The Browser

Transcript: Shaping Your Online Experience

NORTON: Once there’s a profile of you, you’re stuck as that person forever.

AVIRGAN: That’s your identity.

NORTON: Right. Facebook is never going to let you change. Google is never going to let you change. The advertisers have no interest in tracking how you grow as a person. If you’re in your Ayn Rand-ian period as a 17-year old, figuring out how to step back from that while your whole identity has been stapled to you by the Internet means that you always end up bombarded by things reinforcing that person, or you have to totally have to flip and reject it outright, which is not how most people change.

AVIRGAN: But Google and Facebook would say, “No, our tracking actually does follow your changes very closely. The second you Google a particular book, we’re going to now start to feed you stuff related to that.” In a way it’s more about the subtle changes you’re making in your life.

NORTON: I would say, no. I would say that these systems reduce the serendipity that is linked to personal growth. The second you Google a book that is not Randian is not going to be the last time you have that pushed toward you by your customized Google feed. It’s not going to be the last time that stuff comes up on Facebook. To some degree I see the data dealers of Facebook, Google and the ads that we see are like having your dealer as your roommate. It’s really hard to give up a drug when your dealer is your actual roommate. They gather an identity on you and they’re always pushing that back on you.

From a business model perspective, Facebook and Google are ad companies first and foremost. They just have a really captive audience. The way those companies make their money is by tracking you and serving you ads. The more they know about you, the more they can alter the content that you see in order to create the state that their customers want you to be in. Sometimes that’s seeing a bunch of positive things about the customer’s product.

AVIRGAN: When you say customers, you mean an advertiser who wants to advertise through Facebook?

NORTON: Yes. The people who give Facebook and Google money are their customers and those are companies looking to advertise with them.

AVIRGAN: So what are we?

NORTON: We’re the product. We’ve always been the product.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.