Notified but Unaware: Third Party Tracking Online

Stefan Larsson, Anders Jensen-Urstad, Fredrik Heintz

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Drawing from conceptual studies on transparency, particularly with regard to market complexity, user literacy and resignation, this article studies and analyzes the practices of third-party data collection online. Empirically, we map third-party trackers on a sample of Swedish websites in five sectors (media, retail, banking/insurance, public sector, and health), and the trackers are compared to lists of known trackers to determine their main purpose. These results are then used in digital focus groups divided into high-trust and low-trust individuals, to better understand how everyday consumers perceive and cope with the tracking infrastructure. The main results indicate that third-party tracking is omnipresent online, particularly for media and retail sites, showing that data-driven markets depend on the collection, sharing and trade of consumers’ personal data. Furthermore, despite regulatory provisions promoting clearer notifications and designs within the EU, many users are still highly unaware of the data collection practices and their underlying purposes. The results indicate a weak consent base for data collection and a market structure and data collecting practices that are highly non-transparent. We recommend more active supervisory authorities, and more stringent requirements primarily in relation to the obscure ad tech infrastructures to improve transparency and promote consumer awareness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-120
Number of pages20
JournalCritical Analysis of Law
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Apr 2

Bibliographical note

Stefan Larsson, Associate Professor in Technology and Social Change at LTH, Lund University, Sweden; Anders Jensen-Urstad,; Fredrik Heintz, Associate Professor in Computer Science at Linköping University, Sweden.

Acknowledgements: This work was partially supported by i) the Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program – Humanities and Society (WASP-HS) funded by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation and the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation, ii) the Swedish Competition Authority, as well as iii) The Swedish Retail and Wholesale Council.

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Law and Society
  • Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
  • Other Engineering and Technologies not elsewhere specified


  • cookies
  • third party tracking
  • consumer awareness
  • data-driven markets
  • data driven complexity
  • ad markets
  • trust and digital markets
  • digital data-collecting practices
  • GDPR


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