Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Uncle Internet is Watching

Back in the Dark Ages, before there was an Internet, I subscribed to a newsletter called Privacy Journal. It was edited by Robert Ellis Smith, America's leading expert on the right to privacy. Smith counseled that you should never give your Social Security number without asking why, or if, it was needed. I followed this advice for a while and then gave up because it was too much trouble. In fact, privacy itself became too much trouble. There are only so many issues you can be angry about at any one time, and privacy infringements just did not make the cut.

It may be time to rethink that. A recent article in the New York Times reported on the amassing of consumer information by Web companies that track your every Internet search. They can then use this window into your tastes and desires to personally target the ads that appear on your screen. As a marketing executive explained, with more data, it's possible to put the right ads in front of the right people. "That's the whole idea here: put dog food ads in front of people who have dogs."

A while back, I posted a piece about my Googling habit, in which I described my computer Search History as a kind of stream-of-consciousness autobiography. Now I see that, from a marketer's angle, it's also a wish list. Let's see. Customer Banks orders lots of vitamin supplements; she appears to be a bit of a hypochondriac (though some of those symptom searches were on behalf of others); she's often on the lookout for high-end sheets at low-end prices; she researches more travel destinations than a person could possibly visit; and when she does travel, she is relentless about turning up the absolute cheapest airfare. Lots of possibilities for target marketing there.

Does this matter? Sometimes it might be convenient to get targeted ads, to have Uncle Internet know just what you want. But there's a cost - in privacy, not to mention the general creepiness factor.

The New York Times article quoted one of my favorite-ever New Yorker cartoons from 1993. Two dogs are sitting in front of a computer and one says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Now they do.

No comments: