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BLOG: Is ad personalization a threat to privacy?

Leon Fayer | June 6, 2012
Last week, I was doing some research about my upcoming trip to Tanzania.

Last week, I was doing some research about my upcoming trip to Tanzania. I was browsing the web, looking for good deals on trip packages, reading feedback and comments from people who went on a similar trip, checking prerequisites (shots, visas) ---basically general research anyone would do when going on a trip to a place where they've never been, or looking to buy a new product and trying to choose from the selections.

Later that week I was checking my Gmail account, and, what do you know? The news ticker above the email showed me: NYT Travel -- Next Stop: Off Tanzania, Serene Mafia Island. Obviously the article was targeted specifically to me, based upon my research over the few previous days, and it did provide me with some new information. But, is it a valuable service that companies provide, or an invasion of privacy -- an abuse of the collected data that was never meant to be public?

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Over the past few years, the issue of online privacy has become more acute. With the emergence of social web and data services, such as geolocation of web users, more and more information about the user is transparently available for web pages and applications. And, as always, the companies that can directly utilize the data available (and frankly those who benefit from it the most) are marketing and advertising companies. Personalized ads have become a common occurrence, and that scares some users. People believe that anonymity is a core benefit of Internet, and behavioral advertisement violates the privacy that users are expecting. But let's look at the facts. Multiple studies have been done to assess users' response to targeted behavior ads. Despite all of the concerns, the numbers are still pretty overwhelming.

Personally, I don't fully understand people who cling to the idea of anonymity online for a couple of reasons. First, it sounds a little naive to argue against, for example, having your location available to the ad services when anyone can find out a ridiculous amount of "public" information about any given person. Nowadays anyone, with a few clicks of the mouse, can find out where you live and work, what you eat, who is in your immediate and extended family, how much you paid for your house, and much, much more. In perspective, disclosing your current location doesn't sound like a big deal by comparison. Secondly, people don't correlate the same actions on --and off-line because, even still, they view the Internet as completely anonymous channel, often with no repercussions for their actions.

However, online marketing is not much different from its ancestral, offline counterpart. You are being targeted for advertisement daily, based upon your "personal" information. When you are walking down the street, the shoe shiner will not ask you if you need his services if you're wearing tennis shoes or flip flops. You are being targeted, based upon what you wear. New Chinese restaurant staff may not leave their menu at your door handle if you live outside of a 10 mile radius from the restaurant. You are being targeted, based upon where you live. If you are a male and walking through the mall, the staff will not ask you to try a new perfume. You are being targeted, based upon your gender. There are many more examples of daily targeting, based upon profile or behavior, yet those instances are tolerated much better than similar advertisements presented online.


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