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Is ad targeting a privacy issue?

Is ad targeting a privacy issue? Eric Picard

Last week I had the great pleasure of spending a few hours chatting with Joseph Turow, a prolific author on media and advertising and the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School of Communications at UPenn. I've known Joe for a few years, and it's always fun talking to him. In 2007, I was very fortunate to be selected to write a chapter in his book, "The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age."

Joe has spent the last 10 years doing research on many aspects of advertising and media, but one of the biggest areas of interest in his research -- and where he is often sought out -- is in matters related to privacy. I've been thinking about privacy and its relationship to advertising for a long time. (My first article on the topic was published in May 2004.) So Joe and I have engaged several times in healthy debate on the topic.

Most of the research that he has done on privacy is in the form of surveys that ask a series of questions of random samples of U.S. residents. For instance, a 2009 survey he quoted asked, "Do you want websites you visit to show ads that are tailored to your interests?" Not surprisingly (to me at least), the answer came back that 66 percent of respondents said no.

What I would have also liked to have seen was the same group asked some additional baseline questions to gather other related attitudinal references, such as "Do you want websites you visit to show advertising?" Although I haven't found a study that asks this question, I'm fairly certain most people would predict that a large percentage of respondents would say no. Another interesting question that would be valuable to ask any group of people answering questions about advertising online would be, "Do you agree that advertising is necessary to support the websites that you visit in order to keep them free, even if they distract you from what you are doing?" Interestingly, a Dynamic Logic study in 2001 asked this last question in a survey, and it found that 85 percent of respondents agreed.

Asking people questions about advertising is tough. I've had a hypothesis around this that I've wanted to test for years. I believe that if we could devise a valid test of users' actions rather than what they respond to in surveys, we'd find that advertising very rarely keeps people from consuming content. Further, I believe that only when valuable content is overwhelmed by advertising (too many ads per piece of content, or at too high of a repetitive frequency of the same creative) will people be driven away. And more interesting than the 66 percent of respondents who said that they don't want "tailored" ads was the 32 percent who said they do want tailored ads -- I wouldn't have expected it to be so high. (Two percent responded that they didn't know.)

Privacy is an interesting issue in that almost everyone you ask about it will say that they care immensely about the topic, but very few people actually act on that sentiment. I have a hypothesis here as well -- that people care on some base level about privacy, but that doing anything about that is incredibly inconvenient. Some would argue that it's impossible. Shelly Palmer has a great article this week that references the Tiger Woods scandal as an example of how this issue has surpassed our ability to manage it. In his article he says, "There are elected leaders in Washington trying to deal with privacy in the information age, but the technology is far beyond the scope of even the most comprehensive legislation."

This may well be true, although the great thing about technology is that it is constantly evolving, and I generally take a "never say never" point of view here. While early attempts to offer privacy protecting software to the world have been a bit rough, someone may eventually get this right. But what is it that drives people to concerns about privacy? Why do they care?

Most people worry about privacy for a few different reasons, and I'd argue that most of them relate to security, convenience, and reputation. The simple fact is that there will be effects that certain behaviors or facts becoming known to the public or specific entities might have on an individual's financial, family, or business life. People worry about being embarrassed, or embarrassing their families. They worry about losing their jobs or having trouble getting a job. And they worry about medical information being made available to insurance companies that will deny coverage. And there is of course the concern in many cultures, countries, and communities that information kept in databases could be used by a government or other entity to put people's freedom and even their lives in jeopardy. So these are significant and emotionally charged reasons for people to have concerns about privacy.

This brings us to privacy issues related to targeting of advertising. While this may seem almost an inconsequential issue compared to what I've just described in the paragraph above, it's important that we look at ad targeting and understand whether the technologies used for targeting could have impacts on people.

Researchers have proven that even with names removed from data, it is quite easy to compare several public sources of information and reverse-engineer a private profile to determine who a user is. This means that more significant techniques than simply removing names must be utilized to create anonymity in profiles.

Similarly with targeting systems, we as an industry need to ensure that we're doing everything reasonable to protect the consumer from being inappropriately identified and that actions taken based on anonymous profiles are not harmful. All the significant companies participating in this space are doing appropriate things to ensure that personally identifiable data is stripped away and then using techniques that further obfuscate the end consumer from the person buying advertising.

But as always, technology moves forward. And the big trend happening today is for companies to collect numerous forms of data from disparate sources, and to apply those datasets against ad impressions as they take place in order for them to value an impression based on many factors. This can be done in some pretty complex ways, and I'm not sure that those who care about this topic have wrapped their heads around the issues.

The people I've talked to in this space are acting appropriately and putting safeguards in place to ensure that privacy is maintained. And while Shelly Palmer said in his article that "the technology is far beyond the scope of even the most comprehensive legislation," that doesn't mean that governments won't attempt it. But given the global internet, and that technology advances so much faster than is humanly possible to legislate, we can get into very tricky issues.  And legislation of technology typically misses the point or the possibilities. It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out.

Eric Picard is the advertising technology advisor to the Advertising Platform Engineering team at Microsoft.

On Twitter? Follow Picard at @ericpicard. Want to hear the latest from this week's iMedia Agency Summit? Follow the conversation on Twitter #iMediaSummit.

Eric Picard is Vice President, Strategic Partnerships, at MediaMath. He was previously the Founder and CEO of MediaMath-acquired Rare Crowds, an open source ad technology company that provides a completely open advertising technology stack for...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Paul Francis

2010, January 12

A number of computer science researchers, including myself, are working on privacy preserving advertising systems. Our goal is to design and build a system that allows targeting at least as good as what exists today, but with virtually no loss of private information for the user. The trick is to keep any private data on the user's computer. Anyone interested can go to http://adresearch.mpi-sws.org/ to learn more or download our experimental system.

Commenter: Katie Smillie

2009, December 10

Hi Eric. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts here. I'm glad you are pushing these topics forward The privacy issue is definitely something that matters to us and our advertising business at socialmedia.com. I agree with you that in the world of online advertising 32% of people who want tailored ads is a very significant number. I'd also be curious to know if Dynamic Logic has again measured the perceived necessity of online ads since the 2001 survey.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Commenter: Jim Brock

2009, December 09

Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I agree that the larger advertising companies are indeed taking privacy seriously, and a more effective self-regulatory framework is likely to emerge in the coming months.

One problem is that websites and advertisers still do not exercise enough discretion over which networks have access to their user data. Our research has shown that, even though the Network Advertising Initiative (the standard-bearer for best practices) has been around for nearly a decade, on top websites NAI members are still outnumbered by non-NAI members.

What's needed is more direct accountability of websites, which is a component of the new principles offered by the IAB and BBB earlier this year. When websites need to publish which companies collect user data on their pages, that will naturally lead to better practices throughout the industry.

You can learn more about our research here: