Targeted Online Advertisements: A Threat To Personal Identity And Security?

timstoute“Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Tim Stoute, principle engineer and chief technology officer at eyeReturn Marketing.

Online advertising is under a media microscope, primarily due to the perception that targeted ads invade privacy and have the potential for identity theft.

Some people apparently feel either outraged or spooked that online advertisers try to target ads focused on their interests. But targeted advertising enables advertisers to be as efficient as possible by pairing their ads with user interests, such as power-tool ads matched with do­it­yourselfers.

In the Internet realm, where advertisers pay for the free services enjoyed by users, advertisements are a necessity. The criticism and focus on online advertising as an invader of privacy is fundamentally misguided. I’ll explain why.

Anonymous Data Points

There are two important facts to understand when contemplating the privacy of online advertising: The Internet user remains anonymous and unidentifiable and, as mentioned earlier, the underlying business model of Web content is based upon advertisers’ budgets.

Online advertisers adhere to industry codes of conduct from self-regulation groups, such as the Network Advertising Initiative and the Digital Advertising Alliance, and the governing laws of the land. They do not know who you are.

Personally identifiable information is not used by the ad-tech industry, except in rare and explicit cases where consumers’ opt­in has been obtained. Their identity is unknown and cannot reasonably be known through the data to which ad-tech companies normally have access. To an ad-tech company, consumers are anonymous data points, with attributes that indicate what they may be interested in based on historical site visits, search terms or ad clicks. But at no point in time is there a personal identity attached to the data point.

Advertising Makes Content Free For Consumers

Consumers should be aware of the business model supporting the majority of Web content. The content available on the Web is predominantly not offered for free, and it is not your right as a person with an Internet connection to consume it. It is available to users at a cost, but the cost is paid on their behalf by advertising.

Advertising is the cornerstone of the Web content economy. A huge ecosystem of very small to very large businesses relies on this whole system being as efficient as possible. If there were no ads on the Web, consumers would need to pay for content.

A Third Consideration

I believe there is a third aspect to consider when evaluating the risks of privacy invasion and the benefits and rewards of online advertising. In reality, online ad targeting is benign when compared to other commonplace aspects of today’s tech-fueled life.

For example:

• Permissions granted on smartphone apps: Some common apps, including Google Search, Facebook and Uber, will only operate with users’ permission on their device to record audio or take pictures and video at any time without their confirmation.

• Personal information given to social media platforms like Google+ and Facebook: Once they hit the Internet, personal information and comments cannot be truly removed. They become permanent records and, ultimately, public information.

• Location tracking: Our every step can be traced to a persistent and unique identifier on our smartphones by Wi-Fi access points when we walk past their zone of influence, even though we do not knowingly connect to the transmitter.

• Big Brother: The United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts and analyzes most phone calls, as well as Internet traffic.

The following table summarizes common everyday technologies, and the extent to which their utilization facilitates invasion of privacy. I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions about the benefits received in exchange for the personal information provided in these various scenarios.

Technology or platform Extent of personal information collected Trackability Potential to tie your identity to your behaviour
Display ad targeting Low Low low
Netflix High High medium
Wi-Fi hot spots Low to high (depends on the operator and terms and conditions) Very high high
Apps High High very high
Facebook/Google+ Very high Very high very high
Using the Internet Very high (NSA) Very high (NSA) very high (NSA)


I believe the benefits from targeted display ads far outweigh any risks involved. The risks are minimal, both absolutely and relatively when considered in light of other risks that go with using modern communication technology.

Follow Tim Stoute (@thotmobster), eyeReturn Marketing (@eyeReturnMktg) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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