Yes, ‘We have an ad for that’
Think the internet is an unparalleled new medium for communication with friends and loved ones? Think the Net is a source of up-to-the-minute news and instant analysis by an army of journalist-bloggers, and a new way to obtain news from online editions of your favorite newspapers and magazines? Think the Net is a treasure trove of entertainment, from streaming music and films to funny cat videos on YouTube? Think the Net is a repository of nearly the sum total of human knowledge?
Well the answer is yes and no, depending on your point of view. And the view of big business, according to Bryan Kennedy, CEO of Epsilon, a data brokerage firm, is not yours. Rather, he drops this bombshell, “I think consumers need to know that the Internet is an advertising medium.”
There you have it. The Net might be, or rather, is, incredibly useful and fun, and has replaced and radically altered entire industries as well as the way we work and play. But to big business, the Internet is first and foremost the most effective and efficient advertising medium that has ever existed.
It’s also the major medium for collecting your most personal information, secrets and predilections.
You are a commodity
There are hundreds of data brokerage firms who comb through through government records, online searches, credit card purchases and other places, hunting for personal and identifiable information. Among the data they collect: user names, political affiliations, sexual orientation, income, religion and medical issues, including depression or alcoholism.
“You can buy from any number of data brokers by malady,” says Facebook’s former director of public policy Tim Sparapani. “The lists of individuals in America…afflicted with…cancer, heart disease, you name it down to the most rare,” he says. And, says Sparapani, the information can wind up in a file sold to prospective employers or any entity a user may have business with.
Many privacy advocates want more oversight and transparency in the data broker industry so consumers can find out what is being collected, whether it’s accurate, and if not, have the chance to correct it. The Senate Commerce Committee is proposing legislation to do just that. Its chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), has been investigating the industry for more than a year and has accused three of the largest data brokers of not cooperating with Congress.
Kennedy, CEO of Epsilon, says he provided “binders” of information to Rockefeller’s committee and does not see the need for more oversight or regulation. But neither did the savings and loan industry in the 1980s or the brokerage firms and big banks a decade later. He says he doesn’t believe any abuses are taking place within his company. “We would be the first to raise our hand if there are specific uses of data that are problematic,” he says. “We think that self-regulation has been very effective.” He says the government should go after specific abuses and not the entire industry “in a way that could cripple our economy completely,” he says, referring to the $156 billion data-driven marketing industry, which drives Internet commerce and pays for all that free content you consume on the Web.
Kennedy says he is surprised by how much Internet users willingly divulge about themselves. His remark that “consumers ought to understand that the Internet is an advertising medium” is surprisingly candid, and the means and methods it employs to target those ads to just the prospects most likely to buy the goods and services offered are unparalleled by any other media past or present. Yes, there you have it. It’s just another form of media intended to sell you things, an incredibly efficient means of gathering your personal data and targeting you with ads for products you’re likely to be interested in based on the huge volume of personal information you’ve knowingly or unwittingly divulged to data brokers.
Fit to print
This industry is not an entirely new development. Having worked on newspapers for years, I found that though they contended to be serving the public by providing news, their real business, and the one that provided nearly all the profits, was advertising. The New York Times‘ motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print” should more accurately be changed to “all the news that fits between the ads.” And that goes for every paper and every magazine or periodical in existence.
Advertisers, in the heyday of print media, carefully chose its target market sector based on the presumed age, affluence, interests, fashion proclivities, and leisure time pursuits of its target audience. This was determined by focus group studies of readers and periodic reader surveys. The same principles apply to television and radio. But these media are withering, and advertising dollars are being shifted in the billions to the Internet.
Print and broadcast media had fairly accurate representations of its readers and viewers in a general sense. Direct mail marketing was even more accurate, and the mailing list industry thrived through the 1980s and 90s, but it too has seen a steep drop off due to competition from Internet advertising.
The rise of data brokerages, aided and fueled by aggregations of individual data collected from Internet usage, means that advertisers can target a much more specifically defined audience, right down to the individual. The data brokerage firms, which operate beneath the radar of public scrutiny, indeed, any official regulatory or governmental authority, are unhampered by any government or regulatory agency oversight of the means employed to gather personal information.
As I mentioned in a previous article, no one on the Internet should have any expectations of even a reasonable level of privacy. There is no privacy whatsoever. Both the government and industry are scooping up your most private details of your life, and the latter collect and collate this data and sell it to advertisers representing marketers, retailers, hucksters of every stripe.
Have you developed and brought to market a new drug to treat, say, a chronic but relatively rare illness? A data broker can sell you the names and computer addresses of the afflicted and no one else. The same goes for any of the traditional targets of more broad based advertising. But the difference is that now, the broker, and the advertiser, often know you better than you know yourself.
Think those free games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds are really free? There’s no upfront cost to you, unless you value your privacy, since these games are scouring your hard drive for personal information to sell to data brokers. Think that pretty webpage, with its photos, web links and embedded videos records only the fact that you visited? No, tech sites have run tests and counted dozens of spy programs recording not just your actions while viewing the page, but also snooping at lightning speed into the vitals of your device, gathering as much data as they can before you move on.
A test conducted by Techradar using Lightbeam, an extension for the Mozilla browser (freely available on the browser’s homepage to anyone) that detects and displays behind-the-scenes information gathering activity, focused on a typical newspaper website. It found a whopping 31 different third party sites, information services, social networks, analytics, advertising firms, font providers and others watching you as you browsed the site, recording everything from the amount of time spent reading content and advertising, to the links you clicked on, to the social networks you frequent, and the people on your friends list.
Yes, Facebook does indeed spy on much more than your activity on its site; it follows you around the web recording and collecting data on your browsing habits and actions taken on every site you visit. I singled out Facebook only because it is the largest of the social networks, but they all do it. It’s not all malicious or greedy, and it’s not even all secret. In fact Facebook as much as advertises its presence by placing “like” buttons on every site that permits it, and the vast majority do permit it. There are also those handy social media “share” buttons, which I and countless others use all the time, and often are disappointed when they are absent.
But you can block it and the others from following you around the web with several tools of various levels of capability. The most effective and informative of these for the average user is called Ghostery, a free plug in for Safari, Opera, Firefox, and Chrome browsers which works with both Android and iOS devices. It contains 1,900 known trackers in its database.
(For the truly paranoid there are truly untraceable tools employing the so-called Dark Net, the best known of which is the Tor network, used by NSA whistle-blower Ed Snowden and some terrorist groups, but these are military grade spoof and encryption pathways used by the type of people you’d rather not have as neighbors.
Watching the watchers
Ghostery is also at the top of the competition because it does more than just tell you to what the name of the network the site you are on is connected to. It displays what type of network it is, what data it is gleaning from you, and what it does with that information.
A quick try out was an eye opener. Google’s DoubleClick ad network, for example, collects not just your hardware type and browser information. This is relatively harmless and anonymous. But it also collects your IP address, search histories, device IDs and phone numbers. In other words, it conducts a virtual strip search of your online self and records it, and files the data under the name of the user to which the IP address is registered.
Ghostery is very customizable. You could for instance block ad networks but keep social media sharing buttons, and with a click you can enable content you want to view such as embedded video or audio.
Your personal information is gathered by sifting through government records, online searches, credit card purchases, browsing sites frequented, the contents of your personal email, and other activity on the Web, hunting for personal and identifiable information.
Among the data they collect: user names, political affiliations, sexual orientation, income, religion and medical issues, including depression or alcoholism. “You can buy from any number of data brokers by malady,” says Facebook’s former director of public policy Tim Sparapani. “The lists of individuals in America…afflicted with…cancer, heart disease, you name it down to the most rare,” he says. And, says Sparapani, the information can wind up in a file sold to prospective employers or any entity a user may have business with.
But not all information is gathered without the user’s knowledge. As Kennedy said, “You’d be amazed by the information just given away by most users.”
Advertisers for years have tried various methods for narrowing down and targeting the potential customer base most likely to be in the market for the goods and services they offer. The Internet is a marketer’s dream. With the personal information gathered about you by the mostly invisible (to you) monitoring software present on most sites, they can shoot an ad directly to the individual likely to be in the market for their wares. It gives new meaning to what used to be called direct marketing, which was aimed at potential customers based on their buying habits in the past.
Now they can cast a tight beam of advertising on people who have no idea that they are revealing their wants and desires to a host of data collectors by just reading the newspaper online, or even mentioning their interest in a product or service in their personal email.
Try this test. Write a letter to a friend and tell them you’re looking for a new large screen television. Then bring up Google, and enter whatever search term you like. Nine times out of ten you’ll find ads for new TVs on your results page.
So next time you’re alone with your laptop or tablet, browsing the Web, remember that you’re not really alone. You are yourself being browsed and scanned by dozens of spy programs. You can block them by using the browser plug ins mentioned above, but you must do this manually for every site you visit, each page you reach by clicking on a link. It’s just not practical.
Until and unless these data collectors are called to heel by the government, which is unlikely, remember, you’re never really alone when you’re on the Internet. As long as you’re connected, you’re being watched, recorded, and your most private information is being gathered by an ever growing number of commercial and government snoops.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.