By Chris Brinkworth, managing partner, Civic Data.
The third-party cookie, the ubiquitous ‘crumb trail’ for 20 years of our online wanderings, started to meet its demise in Chrome last week by 1%, having already met its 100% demise for Safari users over the past few years. In its wake, a different privacy issue is emerging that agencies and their clients need to pay attention to, which is obscuring the path forward with promises of “tracking salvation”.
Enter the humble ‘tracking pixel and tag’, a seemingly inconspicuous bit of code, poised to become the omnipresent tracker of the post-cookie era, controlled by big tech. Yet, for Australian brands caught in this new data-driven stampede created by cookie deprecation, the question we need to be asking is: are we merely swapping this panopticon of cookies for a privacy and consent quagmire of hidden tags that do
more harm, more invisibly, than cookies ever did? From our deep experience in auditing tags and pixels for privacy compliance purposes, we know for certain that it is looking very likely.
Let’s be clear: tags aren’t mere cookie ‘lite’. They can be data krakens, slurping up far more than just browsing habits! They can collect intricate clickstream paths, device fingerprints, and even interactions within website elements – all often through opaque external scripts that many businesses do not know or understand are happening. Picture every website visit triggering a flurry of these krakens, each collecting its own slice of a consumer’s digital DNA. The mosaic they can stitch together paints a very chilling picture that we all know of already: a labyrinth of hidden surveillance built without transparency or informed consent.
My concern is that as the industry scrambles for data visibility and tries every new tech and trick available as the cookie disappears, brands and agencies risk sleepwalking into this privacy nightmare. Driven by the pressure to measure campaign performance in a cookieless world, we are rushing to deploy new tags like shiny toys, yet neglecting crucial considerations like governance and security. If we’re honest, Privacy teams remain uninvited and security protocols gather dust while tags proliferate unchecked – and this is far worse than what cookies could do.
Civic Data has already seen how this is leading to unintended consequences like data breaches from unvetted tags and invasive profiling practices. In the climate following breach after breach, there are stark reminders of the vulnerabilities brands can unwittingly introduce.
The domino effect of such overcorrections could be devastating. Eroded consumer trust can crumble brand loyalty. Astronomical fines from data regulators are already looming large with the changes to breach penalties. Worse, the very data brands desperately seek may vanish entirely as consumers recoil from invasive tracking.
Instead of sleepwalking into privacy pitfalls, agencies and brands must wake up to the need for ethical data and tag governance and bring privacy teams into planning/deployment for tools for collecting, storing, or activating data. This means:
1. Shifting from ad-hoc solutions to holistic frameworks: Invest in frameworks prioritising transparency, control, and compliance. Imagine letting users understand/manage data use.
2. Bringing privacy to the data party: Don’t ignore privacy teams; make them co-pilots, ensuring compliance and ethical practices.
3. Making security a priority: Ditch the ‘don’t worry, we’ve got a tag manager’ attitude. Implement robust protocols like assessments, penetration testing, and encryption as pillars, not optional extras.
Embracing these practices isn’t just avoiding penalties; it’s building trust and ensuring sustainability. Consumers are increasingly privacy-aware – brands prioritising transparency and control will win hearts and minds.
The cookie’s demise presents a chance to break from intrusive practices. Let’s build bridges of consent and education, not stumble into hidden tags. Agencies and marketers can hit reset by bringing IT, Legal and Privacy teams together to discuss.
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