It’s a Friday morning. You wake up, make some coffee, and fire up your computer. You figure you’ll surf the web for a little bit and see what’s going on in the world before you head in to work.
As you’re reading through the daily headlines of death, despair, and celebrity weddings, your mind begins to wander. You remember your friend telling you about a totally rad snack cake that you just have to try. So you do a quick search of that snack cake, hoping to discover what makes said cake so rad. You do your research and find out that the snack cake is indeed rad, close the page, and go about your internet perusal.
You click a link to watch a video of a skateboarding dog, because why not? Your excitement is palpable. Only, as you click the link and watch the page unfurl, your eyes are drawn to a most unsettling advertisement banner. It’s an ad for the very snack cakes that you just read up on! In a frenzy, you pull your curtains closed, deadbolt your door, call in sick to work, and wail for a bit about how someone is watching you.
There’s been abundant buzz recently about search engines and social media platforms tracking users’ activity and using it to direct ads. On the one hand, this has the advantage of showing you ads you might find interesting or useful — the rad new snack cake, not denture cream. You can see it as — and we certainly encourage our clients to see it as — offering your ads, which you are going to buy anyway, to someone who is interested in them instead of putting them in front of people who will ignore them completely. Just as Google makes search suggestions based on what they think you’ll enjoy, they show you ads based on what they think you’ll enjoy. It’s kind of life having a nice, attentive butler who notices your interest in the new snack cakes instead of bringing you rice pudding. But at its base, behavioral targeting isn’t only about giving you a better online experience.
Behavioral targeting uses information about you to make money. Many people are concerned, scared, or outraged about their privacy being violated and their information being sold out to the highest bidder. While these feelings aren’t necessarily unfounded, are they really reasonable? Assuming that you’re not doing something illegal or uncouth, is there cause for alarm?
You might be thinking, “Well, it’s a violation of privacy and that’s wrong! Even if I have nothing to hide, people shouldn’t be able to see what I’m doing. Why don’t I just install glass walls on my house while I’m at it?!”
Perhaps search engines and social media platforms shouldn’t be able to record and profit from your internet activity, but is the fact that you like snack cakes and watch videos of dogs skateboarding sensitive information? It’s not as if someone could steal your search engine history. They don’t ask for your snack cake preference when you apply for a credit card.
Behavioral targeting is basically a way for companies to try to sell you things that you already want to buy. The only imminent threat to you is that you might develop a spending problem and have to learn to resist tempting deals on snack cakes. Sure, it could be upsetting that what you do on the internet is observed and that information is sold, but it’s no different than if you buy something from Victorian Trading Co. and get their catalog for the rest of your life.
If you are truly upset that search engines and social media platforms are invading your privacy and selling your information to companies, you can take measures against it. Deleting your social media accounts might keep you in the dark about social events, but your privacy will remain intact, and search engine DuckDuckGo claims to refrain from collecting or sharing personal information.