Friday, July 31, 2009

We've all become data-entry clerks for advertisers

The web bugAs a follow-up to my previous post on the KnowPrivacy Project, I thought I'd call your attention to an article by Stephanie Clifford in the New York Times today. It's about how online and offline data mining is being used by corporations to profile web users. Those profiles determine not only what ads will be targeted at you, but which version of a website you see and which promotional offers you receive. One source is quoted in the article as saying that two different users visiting the same website and viewing the same product may see different prices depending on their past browsing and purchasing habits.

Advertisers contract with data mining companies such as Experian, Datran, and Acxiom to identify people who match criteria of age, income, net worth, location, commodity ownership, purchasing patterns, and many others; Clifford reports that cookies placed on user's web browsers by Datran collect "50 to 100 pieces of information." I loved the cognitive dissonance displayed in the attitudes Clifford elicited from Patrick Williams, a publisher who made use of Acxiom to target potential subscribers for his money-management magazine: "'They are the scariest data research company around — they know far too much,' said Mr. Williams, who said he was very happy with the amount of information [Acxiom] gave him."

The situation is even worse than it's portrayed in the article. Clifford focusses exclusively on cookies and doesn't even mention web bugs and beacons, which collect personal information about you without your knowledge or consent.

Clifford ends the article with a telling quote from Paul Schwartz, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley: "'Interactive media really gets into this creepy Orwellian thing, where it’s a record of our thoughts on the way to decision-making,' he said. 'We’re like the data-input clerks now for the industry.'"

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