David Balaban

@david.w.balaban

Yay, It Wasn’t Paranoia! A Story About My Dream and Ad Targeting

It becomes scary at times that runny nose medicine ads may target people who are diligent employees and regularly go to the office but have skipped the last couple of work days. Over the past few years, I have come to realize that I was happy to have distrusted credit cards for my whole adult life and used them in emergency cases only.

Now I’m going to tell you a few examples. Just a side note — my lawyer has recommended that I put it a bit milder here and there, therefore the whole story is my humble opinion that may have little to do with real world. A lot of it was just a dream.

So, I had this dream where people could be targeted based on their bank account balance and the purchases they make. For instance, the targeting that says, “This person has been a parent for six years” can be rephrased like this: “He or she made frequent purchases via payment terminals in specific retail networks five years ago.” The targeting that goes, “The person lives in this particular neighborhood and has more than $100,000 on their account” is derived from frequently visited stores, and if there are two clusters then the location is most likely closer to the outskirts.

Then, the good ol’ Google has a feature that reads one’s recent messages in Gmail inbox. It’s the robot that does this, of course. It can extract certain keywords or subjects from there, align them with the user’s profile and display ads. At least, there have been rumors that this functionality was in beta testing, although I have no clue if it ever reached production stage. This way, you can adjust your special prices for products after receiving an email newsletter from a competitor (haha). You can even determine specific contractors and target them. Long story short, there are lots of interesting things you can do.

What else? The recommendation services on websites are all about mass personalization. They are embedded into sites, and they can know what you usually buy (from a database shared by multiple online resources) and have an approximate profile of you based on your hardware, web browser, geography and a bunch of other factors.

Mobile network operators can target people based on their geolocation and everything else they know — the list of visited sites, your friends whom you call the most, and in some countries including even your passport details. Thankfully, not all of them take advantage of this whole range of capabilities. A discount in a store near your favorite shopping mall is a typical offer of this kind. The most “touching” thing is that the wording of these offers doesn’t imply in any way that the operator knows the subscriber’s location.

The text messages can be sent to those who bought goods on a competitor’s site (the operator can see the fact of the order page loading). They can as well be sent to those who literally walked into a competitor’s sales point and the ones who reached out to the competitor’s call center. Again, my acquaintances from the pharma business have recently discussed the targeting by “sexually transmitted diseases” subject aimed at people who contacted call girls.

Let’s move on to Wi-Fi. In one of the cases, a cafe marketing crew that knew many of their visitors were also active subway passengers, assigned unique identifiers to these people as they went online via public Wi-Fi in the subway. This allowed them to send targeted ads to that audience — not necessarily when the customers were in the subway or the cafe — simply everywhere. This tech is being offered by a bunch of companies: you can install a Wi-Fi router that will assign identifiers to your clients, and these IDs will become remarketing tokens in public Wi-Fi networks. So, if you use open wireless networks requiring your phone number to connect, then you can be identified.

Next, they can see when you go to places with their routers installed in them. That’s because when you connect to a known SSID the MAC address doesn’t change. The PR guys don’t have to take it to the obvious “Free Wi-Fi” stage — only a few steps further than probe will suffice. This is how databases of visitors attending major conferences and seminars are collected

I won’t even dwell on the nasty apps that use your microphone for various purposes, nor will I elaborate on email services that recognize text in images embedded in the received messages stating it is done: “For your convenience.” What does Uber need round-the-clock geolocation for? They seem to have explained, again — for my convenience. Some taxi services are even offering discounts for low-income customers — there are people who might find it flattering, but I’m not one of them. One way or another, these practices have been officially denied a few times already.

Anyway, when our system administrator once said he was worried about his keyboard because it used a non-encrypted wireless channel and anyone could intercept the signal, I was happy to tell him about the other caveats of the modern online life. Well, the keyboard issue doesn’t seem to disturb him so much anymore.

The funny thing is, we already have to take it all as a given. Yes, the whole system is watching you. This has become the norm, though, and privacy will be a really blurred concept in the near future. This is just a shift in a moral norm, not more than that. By the way, I have talked to an analyst working at a German retail firm lately. Having learned about some of those marketing “innovations”, she said many of these things are forbidden in her country and she finds them unacceptable because targeting specific people no matter what it takes is a disgusting strategy. However, we have yet to find out how effective these prohibitions are. At this point, you can get some extra protection by using VPN and TOR or even Tor over VPN, but this probably won’t last long because all the servers of all VPNs and TOR are known to those who really need them.

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