You probably don’t recognize the names of most tracking companies...

...and that’s just the way they want it.

Tracking companies are part of a huge network of advertisers and websites that use cookies, web bugs, and other tracking technologies to collect your personal information as you browse the web. These companies create profiles of you that often includes the sites you visit, your searches, articles you read, things you buy, videos you watch, and much more.

Data miners combine that online data with offline data like salary history, voter files, and marriage licenses. Companies use these profiles for things ranging from merely annoying, like targeted online ads, to more concerning, like determining your credit or whether you get a job.

How do these companies make money?

Tracking companies generally make money by either selling your information to other companies or displaying ads to you.

How are targeted ads different from regular ads?

Regular, non-targeted ads are based on the content of the webpage. For example, if you visit a website about Gibson guitars, the ads you’ll see will probably have to do with guitars; get guitar lessons, buy guitar strings, etc. This makes sense, right?

But in contrast, targeted ads are based on you. For example, if you’ve been researching trips to Germany and checked out several websites about it, trackers know you’re interested in the topic of Germany, and will show you Germany-related ads on every site that supports targeted advertising. Targeted ads have nothing to do with the content of the page and everything to do with you as an individual.