In Speech, Obama Conflates Ad Tracking With NSA Spying

obama-spiesIn a speech Friday on proposed changes to the government’s spying program, President Barack Obama briefly linked the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic and foreign surveillance activities to digital ad tracking common in the marketing world.

According to the speech transcript, Obama said of his intelligence review:

“There was a recognition by all who participated in these reviews that the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone. But all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher.”

It was a brief reference to be sure, but any conflation by the president of digital advertising with the NSA’s over-reaching surveillance program is a branding calamity for an industry that increasingly must go out of its way to emphasize the anonymous nature of targeted online advertising. Worse for marketing interests, the last sentence of his commercial reference implies the intelligence community (spies) should aspire to “higher” standards of privacy than advertising interests.

Marketers would beg to differ. In a blog post disputing that passage of the speech, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) said,

“DMA was disappointed to see the responsible use of consumer data for marketing purposes conflated with ‘government surveillance.’ As revelations regarding NSA practices have come to light in recent months, DMA has been working hard to make it clear to policymakers and the media that issues around government surveillance are not related to data-driven marketing.”

The unfavorable comparison of marketers with the NSA seems to be a common theme now among some regulators.  In a hearing last month held by the congressional Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said, “The NSA is so secure in its protection of privacy compared to data brokers, it’s not even close.”

Rockefeller called out three database marketing companies – Acxiom, Epsilon and Experian Marketing Services –for what he described as a resistance to supply direct answers to the committee. “I’m putting these three companies on notice today that I’m not satisfied with these answers and there are further steps we can use to get answers to these questions,” he said.

Obama’s widely anticipated address followed an independent review of the NSA’s use of technology to gather intelligence. In it, Obama called for new controls on the spying program.

Ryan Joe contributed. 

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  1. The conflation of ad tech with the NSA’s policy of indescriminate surveillance of U.S. citizens points to the potential use of the advertising industry as a red herring. President Obama, whatever you think of him politically, is our “spy in chief.” The bad guys here–the NSA–roll up to him. He MUST protect them to demonstrate his leadership to that organization.

    Don’t be surprised if, in an effort to maintain trust and morale in that branch of the government, the advertising community gets thrown repeatedly under the bus to the detriment of all. There will be no place to hide under the radar if advertising and marketing technology companies are used to protect the surveillance state.

    So what do we do? A few mildly-worded editorials from the DMA, IAB or others won’t be enough to protect the advertising industry. We need to continue working with privacy advocates to provide appropriate end-user protection, telling our story about what we do and don’t do (and how that’s VERY different from surveillance) and police our industry aggressively with a “broken windows theory” approach.

    Are we up to the task?

  2. Mr. Advertising Executive

    I find the fact that this site censors comments to be a part of the industries overall problem. The Online Advertising industry continues to ignore the wants, needs and realities of its practices… and its backlash and deserving outcry is not only warranted its due. Obama is right about the tracking of users by firms in this space. It makes no difference whether the spy is selling you a widget a subscription or the idea of your safety. Spying is spying is spying.

    AdExchanger has unfortunately declared itself to be a shill rather than an objective observer. And IMHO lost any and all respect… Bad choice. Integrity is not malleable, its absolute and your choice to allow only comments you agree with to appear on your site shows your true colors and the level of integrity your site provides. Pay to play is the norm folks, and that’s sad. But that’s the way of our times. Profits outweigh principles.

    An advertising veteran