Web Privacy: I Know What You Clicked Last Summer

You might want to be careful the next time you “like” or comment on a post on Facebook, because you never know who is going to see that information.

With the advent of the web, privacy concerns have taken on new dimensions. Your personal information is no longer confined to the four walls of your home or your network of friends. In the age of the internet, such information can be made available to a much wider audience than you think, and this has gotten privacy advocates riled up about the places that it can potentially go[1].

How and where this information becomes commercially valuable is in the intersection between internet companies such as Facebook and Google and advertisers. Whereas marketing in the past took place through traditional mediums of communication such as television and radio that carried advertisements to a mass audience, the internet now allows advertisers to refine this technique by targeting only users that are most suited for their products or services, in a process known as targeted advertising.[2]

For instance, anything that you post on Facebook, any “likes” that you give, comments that you make, photos that you post, doesn’t end at your newsfeed; that information is analysed by Facebook employees who will then match you with marketers that have paid huge sums of cash to reach specific individuals like yourself with their advertisements.

Just how far targeted advertising can go can occasionally be unsettling. In 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported that internet companies such as Facebook and MySpace were sending advertisers information that could be used to track down a user’s profile, including their real name, age, address and occupation.[3] More recently in 2013, it was found that even private messages on Facebook were being scanned for keywords for advertising purposes, a revelation that earned the social networking giant its share of controversy.[4]

It’s in instances such as these that have gotten consumers worried. What part of our personal information can internet companies use for their own commercial purposes and what should be kept from them? At what point does it become necessary to draw the line?

In 2012, that line became apparent when Facebook proposed $20 million to settle a class action lawsuit, accusing it of violating the rights of its users through an advertising initiative known as “Sponsored Program”.[5]  Under this initiative, advertisers are allowed to advertise your “likes” of their posts to your friends, in the belief that peer influence can induce your friends to take a similar interest in their products. Imagine if your “like” of some potentially embarrassing product or service (everybody has them) is broadcast to your closest friends or family. Not everyone relishes the idea of such blatant and open disclosure.

The war between privacy advocates and internet companies is far from over. Targeted advertising shows no signs of abating due to its demonstrated effectiveness.[6] And as online privacy regulations evolve to keep up with the concerns of consumers, advertisers and internet companies are similarly coming up with new and more innovative ways to get their advertisements to the right audiences.[7]

One example of targeted advertising by Facebook: Analysing your pictures to match you with similar products.
One example of targeted advertising: Analysing your pictures to match you with similar products. Source: http://mashable.com/2014/08/13/passive-hashtags/

References:

[1] http://news.yahoo.com/study-finds-online-privacy-concerns-rise-040211677.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targeted_advertising

[3] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704513104575256701215465596

[4] http://www.ibtimes.com/judge-facebook-scan-users-private-messages-targeted-advertising-prepare-class-action-1767234

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/08/facebook-sponsored-stories-settlement_n_1949307.html

[6] http://hiplab.mc.vanderbilt.edu/~zhangw/p261.pdf

[7] http://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-to-give-advertisers-data-about-users-web-browsing-1402561120

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