Why privacy isn't the problem with online targeting

Some "facts" you might not know about me, particularly if you're going by the picture on the upper left hand side of this page.

I'm a married male head of household who speaks Spanish. I have two teenage children and a high school diploma. I'm retired. My income is below $50,000. I've recently purchased luxury cars and cruises. I have only one interest: sports. I'm in-market for every type of car you can think of: economy, compact, luxury sedan, full-size SUV, and a motorcycle!

Other purchases I'm considering: magazines, theme park tickets, auto parts and accessories, and men's clothing.

That, at least, is who a major real-time bidding platform thinks I am, based on several years of browsing history.

I have never wiped my cookies.

Here are some more factual facts: I'm a single, childless, working woman who has owned only one vehicle (over two decades ago, not in the U.S.). I haven't watched or participated in a sporting event since gym class ceased to be mandatory. Cruises? Once, in 1983. Last theme park visit: 1971.

With zero effort on my part and many years of data, my online profile is even more wrong than Jeffrey Rosen's two deliberately falsified online identities, created for a feature in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

The piece is an indictment of real-time bidding (which the author occasionally conflates with retargeting, which is something completely different) and by extension, online targeting. While Rosen mentions, almost in passing, that this (erroneous) collected data is anonymous, he nevertheless sounds the alarm about "obvious privacy concerns" because "computers can link our digital profiles with our real identities so precisely that it will soon be hard to claim that the profiles are anonymous in any meaningful sense." Big data, he maintains, will effectively provide advertisers with your DNA map once they triangulate your email font with your shirt color and driving habits.

Do Not Track aside, virtually everything in my BlueKai profile is false, except the fact that I do live in the New York State/Northern New Jersey area, which hardly takes a bloodhound to figure out.

In other words, there's indeed a problem with digital advertising. If ad platforms aren't delivering the targeting that advertisers are paying for, the emperor has no clothes.

More perplexing than Rosen's indictment of real-time platforms for violating privacy (while apparently not even knowing such basics as the gender of the otherwise anonymous person whose privacy they're purportedly violating) is how he goes on to lament the erosion of our individuality as a result of receiving targeted ads.

It's a strange logic:

"'You might find that people who have a luxury car tend to have a high propensity to buy some kind of biking gear, so a person who expresses a high preference for luxury cars might be a good target for biking gear, even though they don't yet bike.' But this leaves no possibility for individuality, eccentricity or the possibility of developing tastes and preferences that differ from those of people you superficially resemble."

Wait a minute. Who suffers if I'm served with an ad for a bike because it's falsely assumed I own a luxury car? Everyone in the equation but me is negatively impacted: The advertiser pays for a useless impression, the bidding platform's credibility is damaged, and the publisher, already getting lower rates for running this type of advertising, risks being viewed as an ineffective medium by both the vendor and the advertiser.

Me? I just ignore the ad, like the other 80 percent of people who use the web.

Most difficult of all to comprehend are the author's claims that somehow online targeting will lead to a level of personalization that will erode "common culture" and "shared reality."

Global culture has become all too common, in the most literal sense of that word. The internet offers opportunities to discover new things, plunge into obscure fields of interest, and find others who share uncommon passions. It's this alternative to "shared reality" that inspired me to leave a career in television for this brave new world -- a place where I could find others who share my often offbeat interests. (Sports? No. Japanese cinema? Absolutely!)

Finally, the Grey Lady ignores the most salient fact of all. Most of the web, like almost every other media channel, is made possible by advertising -- a fact not once mentioned in this story made possible by advertising.

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

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