Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the web.
March 2, 2000 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the web. Now it turns out that the damned ad companies can inadvertantly learn a LOT about you that you didn't realize you were telling them.

You know, I'm really glad I use AtGuard and have closed off DoubleClick and FocaLink and all those other guys in my firewall by blocking their IPs. (It's now part of the Norton Internet Security 2000 package, and I recommend it highly.)

From me, they learn nothing because they never even see the requests.
posted by Steven Den Beste (17 comments total)

Please explain to me why you don't want companies to be able to target you with directed ads. What information here are you afraid of them getting?

I don't care if anyone knows where I surf. I don't care if they know what I buy. I would rather see ads for products I might want to buy. This is not a bad thing. If you really need TOTAL privacy then go live in the woods.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:51 AM on March 2, 2000

It would be nice if someone maintained an up-to-date list of advertising companies who build profiles so I knew which ones to block. I have quite a list going, but I know it's not all of them.
posted by pb at 12:06 PM on March 2, 2000

y6: If their potential use of personal information was entirely limited to targeted ads, it wouldn't be so bad. But how about targeted insurance rates? Targeted goods price control? Targeted media censorship? Discrimination? (Real scholars of the subject could list a bunch more, I'm sure. I'm just a ranting MetaFilter reader.) Yes, DoubleClick can't do that *yet*, but all they have to do is trade/sell this info with other companies/industries...

And if you think government regulation will handle those problems when they arise, why not start regulating now, while the information is too spread out to be useful?

Tangent: I shop at Safeway with a "club card." I'm not happy about it, but doing otherwise would cost me about an extra $30-$40/mo in grocery money. There are no other grocery stores in the area, and now that they have the "club" program in full swing, the non-"club" prices are outrageous and the "club" prices are what you'd expect to pay *without* a coupon in any other store. (It's my own dumb-ass fault that they have my real name and phone number. I really oughta reapply for a different card with fake info...)

If my health insurance company knew I ate meat, my premiums would be higher. Hell, car insurance is more expensive if your car is *red*.


posted by dan_of_brainlog at 1:43 PM on March 2, 2000

Dan, I realized the cards were invasive the moment that the drug store chain (Sav-ons) tied their club card purchasing into my supermarket's (Lucky's).

At that precise moment, both Lucky's and Sav-ons knew not only what I ate, drank, and cleansed myself with, they also knew how often I bought medications and condoms at Sav-ons. That's right, they knew how many boxes of condoms I bought per time period, and from that, they could easily deduce how often I...y'know.

Is there any reason a supermarket chain should ever know that about a customer?

Luckily, the supermarket chain was sold off and the new owners don't do the club card thing.
posted by mathowie at 2:03 PM on March 2, 2000

FTC restricts firm's sale of personal data (via Slashdot, but relevant to this discussion). Even if this were general policy, it still doesn't stop vertical mergers...

posted by dan_of_brainlog at 2:28 PM on March 2, 2000

Targeted rates? Sounds fair.
Targeted prices? I can always shop for the best deal.
Targeted censorship? Huh? You've crossed the line into paranoia.
Discrimination? Would be litigated out of existence.

I don't shop where you do, but my "club card" saves me money over other stores. Yes, they can find out how TP you use per day. If they want to go to the trouble, they're welcome to it.

I'm still not seeing the harm. How am I being harmed. If you really think your privacy is this precious, then you shouldn't be using something called the "Internet".

I personally think TV is evil. So I don't watch it. I don't own one. If you think it's so bad then don't use it.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:37 PM on March 2, 2000

hmmm well... I guess I too am paranoid. If companies want to get market research information then they can pay me in one of those silly market surveys. After all, they're going to make millions off of what I tell them. I should at least have the right to chose what I am going share, and to whom I'm going to share it with. This is really just the beginning I think. (paranoia streak again - I must be mad) Once you willingly give up or blindly ignore one right (in this case the right to privacy online), the door is open for other rights to be taken away.
posted by Ms Snit at 2:51 PM on March 2, 2000

Phil Agre just published a great summary of the issues around online privacy.
posted by mathowie at 3:05 PM on March 2, 2000

All we're talking about is targeted advertising. As the article linked above illustrates, the doors are not being thrown open to anyone and anything. I like having a constitutional right to privacy. If Safeway is going to sell information I consider personal to anyone who wants it, that would be outside my comfort zone. But they aren't. And if they did we'd find out about it. And we'd stop it. (refer to the article above)

Our privacy is becoming an issue now because new technology is making us more connected. Our lives, yours and mine, are being connected by computers. It's too easy for those computers to grab all kinds of data. As with all technology revolutions, new issues will emerge, but eventually a balance will be found.

I don't mind DoubleClick tracking my page visits and purchases because I like the idea of targeted advertising. If they crossed the line and distributed pictures of me pooping, I would take action and make them stop. I don't buy into the idea that this will slow erode our right to privacy.

You don't have to use the Internet. But if you do, you are requesting free access to services or information that others are making public. That's what an HTTP request is. All DoubleClick is doing is storing those requests and looking for patterns that will let them show you things you'll be interested in.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:29 PM on March 2, 2000

I'm a closet paranoid too. I just don't like the idea of them appropriating *my* information, my style, or whatever it is that I think helps define me. (yes, maybe I *am* this superficial and deserve to be "pirated," but...)

But really, why I'm against it is because I don't like consumerism, despite never totally isolating myself from it. This is the part of the battle I think I can choose with confidence and win; I like to think choosing *which* battle is as important as fighting to retain something significant in my life.

posted by Hilarion at 3:35 PM on March 2, 2000

That's probably my problem. I LOVE consumerism. I end up arguing about things like this a lot, largely because I like buying and having so much. Perhaps I'm out of step with the surfing masses. Shopping is good. Consumerism is your friend! It's what made this country great.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:55 PM on March 2, 2000

It's also what made TV great. If you're as into consumerism as you say you are, then maybe you should get a tv. No, get two. Cause that's what tv's all about.
posted by Ms Snit at 4:24 PM on March 2, 2000

Well...... TV isn't great. TV is bad. It promotes consumerism. But it's still bad. The Internet (to a large degree) forces you to go out and find things you like. TV invites you to sit, slack jawed, on your couch while it TELLS what you SHOULD like.

Tying this back to the original topic: You can't have directed ads on TV like you can on the Internet. Which makes TV even more pointless. And if advertisers CAN show me ads I'll be interested in, I would prefer they do.

And buying just anything isn't the same as consumerism. Consumerism is buying things I want. But I've found that in this high tech age it hard to find some of the edgier stuff out there. I wouldn't have found the cool stuff at ThinkGeek if it weren't for the banner I clicked on. And if DoubleClick wants to show me more cool stuff like that then PLEASE DO SO. I want it! What a great application of technology. Why is that bad?
posted by y6y6y6 at 5:23 PM on March 2, 2000

I've already demonstrated that I'm not qualified to talk in depth about these issues, so instead I'll just backtrack and say that in the real world, I tend to act in the practical sense that you (y6) appear to be advocating. I like the concept of targeted ads a lot, too, and also don't mind having personal info stored in a database--as long as I'm being treated as part of a large aggregate (such as being one of hundreds of people that buy condoms at the local Safeway, a fact which they can use to determine how many boxes to stock). Targeted ads aren't treating me like an aggregate exactly, but the effects are passive and otherwise harmless, so I don't mind.

But I do think that if They have too much info on me, bad things can happen. I like the insurance example a lot because the industry has every incentive to use my personal information to deny my claims and raise my premiums and generally screw me over, and we can see that in the way they treat us here and now. (Health insurance is a big privacy threat in the big gene database idea, for example.)

You said yourself you'd be uncomfortable if DoubleClick sold your info. I'm not so confident they'll get "caught," at least not before my info is spread across a network of unrelated companies. I think the big-time privacy advocates are thinking in terms of the potential of abuse, not the current state of abuse.

Customers and privacy advocates complaining about privacy concerns is the only reason AltaVista et al are giving DC the appropriate amount of flak. It's great to see this happening--wow, an actual balance against corporate power!

So I don't think the complaint is against targeted advertising. Rather, it just doesn't seem worth the potential cost.

[post too long, but no time to edit it; click :]

posted by dan_of_brainlog at 6:23 PM on March 2, 2000

First off, interesting posts. I too have a "club" card for food shopping and have realized it is just a scheme to follow the items I spend money on. Do I care they track what I buy? Not really since I had the feeling I was going to save money. Once they see a pattern in my spending habits and the types of food I buy, then it will directly lead to an increase in prices. The Pic N' Save would be stupid not to use that information in order to increase its bottom line.

When it comes to collection of data concerning the preferences of individuals I see no reason why a company can't be allowed to do that. As long as it is voluntary. If shopping or registering requires you to be tracked you have lost your privacy.

Tracking the customers does create opportunities for lawsuits from certain targeted groups. Similar to the tobacco companies suits, you might soon see, or if you read between the lines are witnessing, that other "harmful" producers are being attacked for targeting certain customers. That is where my paranoia problems surface since no business is safe. Makers of baby foods and medication are just two examples that have one target and would be subject to suits.
posted by brent at 8:14 PM on March 2, 2000

I used to work as a consultant and spent a long time on a project at a very large insurance firm where we helped implement a data mining system which generated lists of names, based on life events, for agents to cold call. E.g., "Mrs. Thompson, I hear you're expecting. Now's a great time to get life insurance..."

Evil? Yes. Helpful? Also yes. This was happening pre-Double Click, pre-Internet, and will continue to happen. I guess in some respects I agree with y6, I'd rather have targetted advertising than haphazard advertising. I'm also not seeing exactly how, for example, Pic N' Save would raise prices for me based on my purchases. Would I have a different price at the checkout? What's to stop me from shopping some where else? Is everyone in town going to charge me more for soy milk because they know I don't eat dairy? And what's the prevent the free market from circumventing this type of behavior? Or a black market? I guess I'm not clear on how this is all going to be our ruin and downfall just yet.

Oh and on the insurance comments, from my capitalistic perspective: you should pay higher rates if you're higher risk, you're more likely to need the benefits insurance supplies. From my socialist perspective: if we had a national health service in the US, this wouldn't be an issue.
posted by megnut at 10:04 PM on March 2, 2000

I think it's amazing, the amount of consumerism on the web. It's amazing how many sites out there ask you for personal information. Personally, it used to bother me when a company demanded info about me when I downloaded a program or whatever, I always wondered what they did with the information, who it would be sold to, how it would be used, etc. For a long time I would do everything I could not to give up any of my information. I can't stand consumerism, I can't stand having ads thrown in my face all the time, and I don't like databases having any goods about who I am and what I like. But no matter how I feel about these things, I happen to think that there's a simple solution.

In light of my paranoia and anti-consumerism, I either don't click on banner ads, or, when I "have" to, I don't buy anything. It's that simple.

I've curbed my kneejerk disgust for consumerism on the web by resigning to the fact that these companies will have info about me, but they're still not going to see dime one from my pocket. I'm now using one of the many free ISPs for my internet access and get to stare at an always-on-top attempt to get that dime...

It's sort of turning the tables. They'll never get anything from me, and now my 56k connection is free. After a while, you stop noticing that the banner ad is even there.
posted by lizardboy at 11:07 PM on March 3, 2000

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