A History of the Data-Tracked User

Essay by Tanya Kant: “Who among us hasn’t blindly accepted a cookie notice or an inscrutable privacy policy, or been stalked by a creepy “personalized” ad? Tracking and profiling are now commonplace fixtures of the digital everyday. This stands even if you use tracker blockers, which have been likened to “using an umbrella in a hurricane.”

In most instances, data tracking is conducted in the name of offering “personalized experiences” to web users: individually targeted marketing, tailored newsfeeds, recommended products and content. To offer such experiences, platforms such as Facebook and Google use a dizzyingly extensive list of categories to track and profile people: gender, age, ethnicity, lifestyle and consumption preferences, language, voice recordings, facial recognition, location, political leanings, music and film taste, income, credit status, employment status, home ownership status, marital status — the list goes on….

As I explore in this case study, and as part of my work on algorithmic identity, data tracking does not just match the “right” people with the “right” products and services — it can dis­criminate, govern, and regulate web users in ways that demand close attention to the social and ethical implications of targeting.

It is not an overstatement to propose that data tracking underpins the online economy as we know it.

Commercial platform providers frame data tracking as inevitable: Data in exchange for a (personalized) service is presented as the best, and often the only, option for platform users. Yet this has not always been the case: In the mid-to-late 1990s, when the web was still in its infancy, “cyberspace” was largely celebrated as public, non-tracked space which afforded users freedom of anonymity. How then did the individual tracking of users come to dominate the web as a market practice?

The following timeline outlines a partial history of the data-tracked user. It centers largely on developments that have affected European (and to a lesser extent U.S.) web users. This timeline includes developments in commercial targeting in the EU and U.S. rather than global developments in algorithmic policing, spatial infrastructures, medicine, and education, all of which are related but deserve their own timelines. This brief history fits into ongoing conversations around algorithmic targeting by reminding us that being tracked and targeted emerges from a historically specific set of developments. Increased legal scrutiny of targeting means that individual targeting as we know it may soon change dramatically — though while the assumption that profiling web users equates to more profit, it’s more than likely that data tracking will persist in some form.

1940s. “Identity scoring” emerges: the categorization of individuals to calculate the benefits or risks of lending credit to certain groups of people….(More)”.