As one who has been using Facebook since it’s relative infancy I have sub-consciously noticed a shift in the way it advertises towards me (and subsequently, how it makes its money). Instead of giving a history of where advertising on social media started, my goal is to analyze where targeted advertising is today and where it may eventually lead in the future. I will discuss various methods and practices advertising companies employ to gain information, the potential invasion this brings and how to protect yourself and lastly I’ll extrapolate current trends to gain a perspective on the future of targeted advertising.
You turn on your computer, navigate to your web browser of choice and search for a new digital camera. That information has just been stored, ready and waiting to be sold to any number of companies. Thousands of lines of code are sent instantly to companies all over the world storing them and cross referencing them painting a picture of you that only lacks your name. As a practical example, using a tool through my web browser called Collusion I am able to identify who tracks me when I visit a certain site. Using only a single site as an example, I visited Google to see who would track me. Two sites returned as potential collectors, one surprisingly being Yahoo.com and the other a site with the name Getjs.net. Collusion returned a modest amount of trackers, however over longer period of time the number of trackers will undoubtedly grow to a much larger number. To simulate this I visit in quick succession many sites that I frequent on daily basis as well as some I never visit. After around 15 sites I checked collusion again and the numbered of sites tracking me ballooned to around 40, with the worst offender, the one who tracked me across the largest number of sites, was still Yahoo.com. Once sites like Yahoo have collected information about me, such as an interest in photography equipment or in gaming, they collate that with geographic data as well as other metrics and store it in a database. This information is sold to companies like Nielsen. Nielsen combines the internet and geographical data with its television resources and places each “anonymous” user into one of their segments which paint a picture of what an individuals’ interests are. In a Wall Street Journal article individuals were tested against the database of a company called [x+1]. The article states most of the assessments were accurate, able to describe individuals down to where they lived, their approximate age, income level and relative interests such as music and shopping habits. Using the Nielsen zip code search tool I looked up my zip code and was able to see numerous charts for average income levels, household sizes and ethnicity. In the WSJ article [x+1] defended this glut of information as legal due to the information on an individual is never joined a with a name so everyone remains anonymous. Not only is it defended as legal but advertising companies echo the mantra that all this data collection is to “better serve the consumer”.
In the WSJ article a Mr. Peter Eckersley, a staff scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy-advocacy group, was interviewed. Mr. Eckersley argued that, using a mathematical equation (S = log2 (1/6625000000)) anyone on planet earth could be identified with 33 “bits” of information. Eckersley argues that certain items of data, such as zip codes and birthdates, are worth anywhere from 10-18 bits, which greatly reduces the need for further information to “de-anonymize” someone. We can see then how information that is bought and sold daily, touting it as anonymous information, is actually quite identifying and when combined with only a few more details will reveal ones