~100 Words #2: User-Side Ad Tech

I spent a number of hours today coding up a Google Chrome extension I hope to release soon as an art project. The extension will be written up somewhere else, but it hinges on what I have always thought is an irony – and maybe now see as a vulnerability – of digital advertising infrastructure: so much of it happens on the user’s side of things.

This might strike someone unfamiliar with the way the internet works as a bit weird. After all, the panopticon looks, it doesn’t ask to be reported to or rely on a dependable protocol of information (control society stuff is probably more relevant here, I haven’t read enough of it to make it useful, so moving on). It makes more sense once you start understanding how tracking happens, and it helps to go back to the most ubiquitous example of a “pixel.”

A tracking pixel is, at its most basic, a bit of code from another website you put on your own that lets that other website know when a visitor has loaded up your site. So say you install Facebook’s pixel on your site, now Facebook can see who’s visiting your site when and create better profiles of users, which theoretically helps you as well because now Facebook can sell you better targeted ads.

I might be making this up, but this is the history of tracking pixels that I have in my head. One day, person A is trying to figure out how to tell if person B has opened their email. A knows that they sent an email, but how could they ever tell if B has actually opened it? Well, person A figures that if they embed an image that’s hosted on their own server into the email to person B, then when person B opens the email, their computer will request the image from person A’s server, and person A will be able to tell the email was opened. However, person A doesn’t want this to be an actual image (it might be irrelevant, take up bandwidth, draw attention to itself, etc), so they figure they’ll just make it as small as possible while still having the quality of being hosted on their own server. Thus, person A implements a 1×1 pixel for tracking a user. Pixel tracking.

This is way longer than 100 words. Things to follow up on: how person B requesting the image from person A is actually a vulnerability for person A. Also Serres.

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