if you track me, would you really know me?

June 22, 2012

According to a piece in NYT, a company called Acxiom is giving the new NSA’s data mining effort a run for its money already; it’s just using its vast storehouses of data on your age, gender, surfing habits, and purchases online to serve you ads and sells this information to marketers in the form of vast databases. From what we’re told by articles like this, companies like Acxiom pose a major threat to your privacy and may be using data that isn’t actually representative of who you are without telling you what data they’re actually collecting, which gives you no chance to fix their mistakes. That would be terrible if Acxiom’s refined cold reading of you was used by government agencies or lenders, and played in important part in decisions like whether you can buy a house, or take a vacation. But it doesn’t, and all your corrections to Acxiom’s data would do is to help marketers target their ads more to your liking, which actually fits with the concept of permission marketing, and could benefit you in the short run. So should you really panic because marketers are watching you, as the NYT suggests?

Well, it’s certainly true that there are companies that aggressively track you online to serve ad after ad when you’re browsing the web. It’s how social media sites try to make money and they charge clients a premium for the promise of turning the typical, more or less scattershot approaches of plastering ads into a surgical strike that will dramatically boost a company’s odds of making a sale. But were you to ask a company other that isn’t a social media site developer that makes money from games or apps running on a particular platform exactly how many sales it gets from social media advertising, you’ll probably get a rather vague answer because it’s not sure. It could tell you who clicked through from their Facebook page or a particular tweet, as long as it was clicked in a browser rather than a client, and made a purchase. Measuring how many people learned about a particular company and later decided to purchase its offerings is a far more difficult affair. Likewise, unless a direct trace between a social media profile and an online shopping cart exists, the demographics of the buyer are usually a best guess based on their initial entry point into the site. And all this is assuming that the IP was not a gateway hundreds of miles away from the buyer and the social media profiles are absolutely honest.

When you really get down to it, companies like Acxiom are offering what amount to hunches about a very, very large pool of computer created educated guesses they hope is big enough to homogenize all the data points in their 70 tranches of typical consumers enough to present a passable target market profile. A lot of the data they have on you may come close to giving a marketer a decent idea of who you are and will ultimately end up in putting you on a list to get a coupon in the mail or an ad when you surf the web, a list curated by a computer and rarely inspected by a human. So again, what’s all the hubbub about the equivalent of watching you shop, writing down what you seem to be doing, trying to generalize it, and selling the data so you get more ads? An ad blocker for your browser would basically neutralize the Acxiom online business model and if you do what I do with junk mail, you’ll just toss the mailers into the nearest trash can and that’s that. Well, summer is rather slow for a lot of major news agencies because all the news makers are mid-training, mid-vacation, mid-deal, or mid-filming, so the news they can report aren’t being made as actively as they usually are. That means we get scandals and sensationalism as filler, according to the latest media studies, and these kinds of articles are just the sort of sensationalistic filler that brings in page views absent a major scandal.

You can tell that the threat isn’t exactly of the life-altering variety because the majority of the article laments the potential effects of not getting an offer because you’ve been misfiled into the "probable deadbeat" category, or as marketer say, slag. Or that some bigoted business owner could discriminate by abusing Acxiom’s data on the ethnic makeup of particular areas and you could be racially mislabeled in their system. Do you really think that a business would refuse your money if the card goes through or the check doesn’t bounce? Or that there would be no other way for a bigot to deny service to customers he hates because of their religion or skin color than by spending thousands of dollars on demographic databases? What’s the worst that comes from a very cursory survey of your surfing habits? Better ads, more accurate recommendations? People like those! Once you find a good way to deal with the idea of a computer following your clicks and start requiring that a service like this works on an opt-in basis rather than the current opt-out-if-you-don’t-like-it idea, you can really use it to your advantage. If companies like Acxiom are really the privacy-encroaching boogeymen that the NYT wants to present them, then these monsters are toothless, always a tad confused, and instead of kidnapping you, they would just try to offer you stuff that you might actually want to buy. So why be scared of them?

[ illustration from a Peugeot ad ]

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Because they have that data. And no one can predict what will happen to that data, or the company. Maybe nothing; maybe the company will quietly go on marketing hunches and irrelevant data, making a modets profit.

    Or perhaps the company will collapse, and someone with far more malicious intent will get their legal hands on that information. Not much you’ll be able to do then.

  • XQZ

    @Bruce

    Has there been an example of the misuse of such online databases other than for things like spam emails? People with malicious intent have seized on all kinds of technology, and I fail to see how these databases are any different.

    They’re probably something we could do without, but whether they are as serious of a threat as they are portrayed is another matter entirely.

  • Bruce Coulson

    So, you’re comfortable with complete strangers having to a lot of information (reliable or not) about you?

    I’m not

    Again, once that information is out there, you have no control over it, or what it might be used for. Or what conclusions (reliable or not) may be drawn about you from that information.