It was a little over two years ago that I realized the ad-tech industry had gone too far. I was an executive at a global advertising company, watching a demo from a third-party data provider on how they could help with ad targeting. Their representative brazenly demonstrated how he could pull up his own personal record and share with us his income, his mortgage details, where he worked, what kind of car he drove, which political party he was likely to vote for, and his personal interests (craft beer, of course). It was everything, all in one place.
Not to be outdone, another startup projected a map of San Francisco with a red line tracking a real, anonymous person throughout their day. He challenged us to infer what we could about her. She left the house at 7 a.m. Went to Starbucks. Went to a school. Went to a yoga studio. Went back to the school. She was a mother with at least one child, and we knew where she lived. We knew this because this woman’s cell phone was tracking her every move. As does every other cell phone, including the one in your pocket right now.
When I looked around the room that day, many of my colleagues seemed alarmed. Up until that point, the advertising industry had asked people to trust us with their data. We were about to go back on that promise. I left the ad-tech industry shortly thereafter.
I realized that my industry had changed. Advertising had ceased to be about connecting with consumers—it was now about finding novel ways of extracting evermore personal information from computers, phones, and smart homes. To many of the most powerful and profitable companies in the world, we are the products, and the services we all use are just afterthoughts they put out to keep us hooked. And the rest of the ad industry, which depends on their data to compete, has no choice but to go along with whatever whims and changes come their way.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have come to accept that our every move is being tracked and used to manipulate what we read, what we buy, how we vote, and how we see the world. By using ‘smart’ devices, we have invited a vast network of big tech companies, advertisers, data brokers, governments, and more into our homes and pockets. These companies have been extracting our personal data without permission and making fortunes with it. And now, with every post, click, and purchase, we have become the product. I didn’t agree to that, and I bet you didn’t either.
How to unwind this surveillance economy
According to a recent Pew study, 61% of Americans would like to do more to protect their privacy. Two-thirds have said the current laws are not good enough (REF). We need a combined political and technological solution to unwind this surveillance economy. Here’s what that should look like.
First, people must have a real choice about what data they share. If you don’t want to share personal data with a company, you shouldn’t have to. For more than a decade, tech companies and advertisers have said there’s no need for opt outs, because people like targeted ads. I’m sure that’s true for some, or even most—but the rest of us should have a choice. Real choices mean informed consent—companies should explain what they’re doing with your data, why, and for how long, in plain English.
Some ad tech firms, like Cuebiq, say they don’t share location data with their clients and that there would be no reason for advertisers to pinpoint individual users with their mobile ad IDs. But privacy advocates are suspicious of these claims because correlating data could be useful to advertisers in targeting potential customers.