They use our browsing history without us being aware of it

Preferences of websites vary from person to person. Some people like to visit car websites and some like fashion websites. Then, even when they are looking at news sites, advertisements displayed on the screen will become all car-related or fashion-related. This is called a targeted advertising.

Why is such targeted advertising possible? The fact is, the history of our browsing websites on the Internet will be saved by the browser we use (Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, etc.). In addition, the server makes your browser remember information on the website you visit. Such information is called cookies.

Advertising service providers use these cookies to analyze the preferences of each user and deliver advertisements that are suited to their preferences.

Through these advertisements, users can find and visit websites of companies they are interested in, while advertising companies can effectively appeal to potential customers.

Moreover, the platformer, who is a service provider, makes money by selling an advertising delivery service targeting a specific customer based on estimated from cookies. The advertising service providers can receive many advertising requests from advertisers by distributing effective ads to users.

Furthermore, these mechanisms enable us to enjoy a variety of services free of charge or at a very low cost in the Internet environment. In other words, this is a win-win situation for everyone.

Our research team conducts a research on advertising deliveries from the advertiser’s point of view. We found out whom they want to distribute their advertisements to so that we could set detailed conditions on the website, such as users’ age, viewing areas, and preferences.

This advertising mechanism has been realized for the first time thanks to the development of Internet technologies which can easily collect personal information and analyze it in detail.

This win-win mechanism is so good that you may think users only need to keep enjoying it. But it is not that simple.

For example, some users are fed up with all the same advertisements shown every time, even if they suit their taste. Some other users feel disgusted or uneasy with their browsing history being used.

Actually, in Japan there was a case where a company supporting college students’ job hunting analyzed students’ browsing history to estimate the probability of students to decline job offers and sold the data model to companies without the students’ permission.

This is a typical use-case of users’ vague anxiety about the use of their personal information without permission.

That is, the technology to analyze personal information has developed beyond our imagination, and without our knowledge and consent, we are analyzed, and the data is bought and sold among companies.

In fact, the underlying analysis of targeted advertising selects a suitable ad for a specific user.

In this regard, the EU, which is sensitive to human rights and privacy protection, is strengthening the movement to regulate platformers’ activities, focusing on giant platformers called GAFA.

Towards realizing a smart society

Should we welcome tighter regulations? You may have mixed feelings about it. As I mentioned earlier, this mechanism allows us users to enjoy the Internet services free of charge.

If regulations are tightened, services may be charged, and only uninteresting or completely unrelated advertisements may be displayed on the screen.

So, what should be done? I think we should be conscious of user-centered services, for which we should advocate our opinions for ourselves.

In other words, the ideal should be for us users to use platformers for our own convenience, rather than being manipulated by platformers or companies buying data from them.

Toward this end, it is necessary to create a system that reflects users’ opinions.

For example, companies that provide services on their websites still publish their privacy policy that specifies how personal information is collected and used. The fact is, however, few people read it carefully because it is minutely written in small characters, and it is difficult for ordinary users to understand the legal wording.

If the privacy policy is improved so that anyone can read and understand it easily, and if the service mechanism is improved to allow each user to choose satisfying services according to the content, then a user-centered system would be established.

At present, the aim is to realize a smart society utilizing ICT and digital technologies. However, this should not be achieved only by experts such as legislative, administrative, legal authorities and engineers.

As advocated in Society 5.0 defined by the Cabinet Office, the goal is to realize a people-centered society, I think it is important for us citizens to participate in the discussions to achieve this goal, to seek designing a system for us, and to express our opinions.

To this end, it is important to understand that facial recognition cameras and targeted advertising described in this series are considerations for an effective use of personal information to realize a smart society. On the other hand, it is also important to understand that there are some risks, such as ransomware, that attempt to exploit such systems and that we need to consider how to deal with such threats and implement countermeasures as our own issues.

You should not say this is something that only experts can understand. First and foremost, you should be interested in these issues and think together with the experts in order to build a system so that we do not get left behind.

* The information contained herein is current as of June 2022.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.