I spend a lot of time listening to music while typing at my keyboard. Recently I have found that my usual Pandora station of study music, an eclectic mixture of punk and rock, is less conducive to the work environment I am currently in. So I made a change. It took a while, but eventually I noticed the biggest difference was not the music: the advertisements were no longer trying to sell me new phones and alcohol, they were instead convincing me to get a credit card so that I don’t have to borrow money from my parents. They also suggested that both the military and the Green Army had jobs, because my new music taste suggested I could use a better one.
Targeted advertising is not a new concept. Companies have been purchasing ad space in magazines, radio and on television that they thought best reached their target audience, for almost as long as those separate media have existed. The modern change, with the introduction of the internet, is the increasing level of granularity that companies can select their audience with, alongside reduced guess work. Where previously a product marketed at homemaking parents might be limited to midday movies for highest results, it is now possible to select that you would like ads to appear in the Facebook newsfeed of middle-aged adults who are not currently employed and have children of a certain age. It’s not perfect, but you will hit the target market with better accuracy.
However, this model presents several problems. Google analytics uses various methods to collect and collate data about their users, including a scan of email content. For example, close to personal vacations it is common for people to start seeing more advertisements about airlines and travel insurance. Many people find it a little bit unsettling; even though it isn’t people who are looking at these emails, it still feels invasive. Target found out the hard way that too direct an advertising campaign can rile people, when a father discovered that his teenage daughter was pregnant from the company’s mailed coupons for baby gear, rather than from the girl herself. Their system guessed she might be pregnant based off of changed purchasing habits, such as buying certain vitamin supplements.
If mildly creepy advertisements were the only cost of targeted marketing, we would probably have a lower use of ad blocking software and less distrust of free services such as Google and Target loyalty cards. Unfortunately, in addition to sharing uncomfortable truths, advertisements can also deliver malicious software, called malware. Malware is a broad term covering computer viruses and other unwanted software that is intended to damage your system or use your resources against your will. In this way, users using Ad Blocker are less susceptible to malicious script (the same effect can be achieved by using plug-ins like No Script, which disables the flashy parts of the ads but still brings the website you are visiting revenue). By using bigger and flashier attention-grabs, criminals have found it much easier to plant malware into innocent users’ web browsers, simply by adding extra code, hidden beneath that disturbingly large cleavage selling itself in your side bar.
For those of you, like myself, on limited data plans, there is an additional downside to tracking, targeting and the ostentatious display of commercialism: all of those bytes you don’t really want are taking away from your monthly quota. Firefox has the option to turn on tracking protection, so you still see all of the advertisements but they are not collecting all of the information from you that they were before. In some cases, this has been demonstrated to save load time (largely by using less data) by almost half.
However, simply blocking advertisements and disabling tracking only makes these websites try harder to bypass such measures, as this is their primary source of income. For anyone using a service for free, expect that someone somewhere is paying for it. There are ethical debates, arguing that taking the content without observing the intended advertisements or partaking in tracking is tantamount to stealing as the website only receives the income if your browser actually receives the advertisement, not by you visiting the page. Others suggest that there is no way to know to what extent that particular website is supported by advertisements until you visit the page. By then it is too late to choose if the potential content is worth the risk of malware and higher data use. There are alternative models, such as paywalls, paid membership models or microtransactions, which allow more flexibility and allay people’s privacy and security concerns, but none that have become widely used.
There are certainly many other, inbuilt, areas of concern on the internet. What makes this one, however, particularly noteworthy is how much it effects, and relies on, the average internet user. Whereas a lot of internet security can be implemented by a professional in a remote location, this issue involves the person who has the least knowledge and capability to fix it: me and you. To counter this, I suggest that the average person do what I do at times like these; have a coffee, take a breath, get another coffee, and then keep browsing.
Words by Kevin Clark