Remember a few years ago, when there was hype about how future advertising would be directly targeted to the individual consumer? Commercials would be able to identify you, learn your preferences and desires, and then custom tailor the ads you see - supposedly leading to a much more enjoyable advertising experience. It isn't that people don't like advertising, so the reasoning went, they just don't like advertising that isn't relevant to them.
Traditional models of advertising are a shotgun approach. Commercials are effectively spam. Broadcast the ad to everyone and hope you reach a couple of people who are interested in what you are promoting. There are ways to fine tune this (you don't see a lot of advertisements for feminine products during "Spongebob Squarepants" or ads for Budweiser beer during Oprah's talkshow) - but in general, you're still painting in pretty broad strokes with traditional advertising.
However, with targeted advertising, you actually know who is watching the show and their individual, personal preferences. The spooky retinal identification in shopping malls displayed in the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Approach" is one plausible application of targeted marketing, although the reality is far more common and a lot less high tech.
Toni Bowers recently wrote about how much power Google holds in setting their algorithms that return relevant web site results. But Google, Apple, and Facebook have all achieved something far more important than determining what web sites we are most likely to visit. They've convinced us to let them ride silently along and track our every move as we click through the information highway, building a customized database of just who we are (at least as potential consumers).
When we surf, Google, Apple, and Facebook generally know if we're male or female; young, middle-aged, or old; religious or secular; left- or right-leaning; gay or straight; and tons of other interesting tidbits that help them decide, "this ad should appear next to this article for this particular reader."
Along the way, this has caused a firestorm of controversy, especially among libertarian-minded nerds and organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), who are increasingly alarmed at the erosion of our personal privacy. Phishers, scammers, and identity thieves are also very interested in these technologies and how they might exploit them to make their jobs easier and less risky. When looked at as a whole, it's understandable why a person should be concerned about what's involved in tracking an individual for the purpose of targeted advertising.
Toni pointed out how Google changed their algorithm to address people gaming the results to get higher rankings in the search engine. While this kind of manipulation of Google is unethical and leads to all kinds of problems, I believe I've stumbled onto a white hat, anarchist-friendly approach toward gaming how advertisers track you.
On Facebook, I finally changed my relationship status from "in a relationship" to "married." I've been married for 17 years, so this created quite a stir and a lot of conversation among my amused Facebook friends. We discussed how a good friend of mine, who is somewhat of a joker, sent me a "relationship request" on Facebook a few years ago. I'm also somewhat of a joker, so I accepted his "relationship request." Ever since then, I've been targeted for advertisements by Gay Cruises (and, oddly enough, divorce attorneys).
One of my friends commented, "This is why I do not release any personal information." Now, keep in mind, I've never disclosed my sexual orientation on Facebook. I'm actually pretty sure that Facebook doesn't have a profile field where you can reveal sexual orientation. I simply accepted that I was "in a relationship" with another Facebook user, who is also male, and the database jumped to the conclusion that it meant I was probably interested in gay cruises.
But this little adolescent joke reveals something important about the ability of Google, Facebook, Apple, and others to track you. They can only take your habits and the information you provide them at face value. Facebook is, to this day, convinced that I am a latent gay man in an unsatisfying heterosexual marriage - and they are targeting ads designed to help me come out, embrace myself, and find happiness.
We understand and warn our kids that the "13-year-old girl" they've met in a chat room may actually be a 40-year-old man in his mother's basement. But the extrapolation of that is, those firms that want to track us and collect our data are just as easily lied to about who we really are. This is a key takeaway from this conversation. Your personal information is only as compromised as you allow it to be, and throwing disinformation at the companies that are tracking your consumer habits can be outrageously effective in confusing the "consumer profile" they've built up on you in their data warehouses.
I recently searched information on Disney World in Florida, because we're considering a trip down there this summer. I'm very excited about the idea, and so are the advertisers. I can't go to a single site now without the Disney Princesses appearing in the side bar of the site I'm viewing. Perhaps it's time for me to mix things up a bit. I might take a couple of hours to do a lot of in-depth research about scrap booking, beading, or quilt making - something 180 degrees different from the gay cruises and family trips to Disney World that my consumer profile currently believes I'm interested in.
Ultimately, I envision my completely (and intentionally) irrational surfing habits causing some poor SQL database to have a complete nervous breakdown trying to figure out what ads it should display for me. The databases that track me will be convinced that I am an elderly, Christian, female, gay, married father of a healthy 2- to 45-year-old baby girl or boy (or two), who might be on anti-depressants and could be interested in a divorce - or at least a trip to Vegas.
Now just imagine if everyone joined me in this. Information is power. Sure, Google has turned you into their product, but you can fight back. Disinformation is also power. Now, go out into the world and create confusion - and in doing so, take back your privacy. You can thank me later.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.