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How targeted ads ruin holiday surprises

David VronayBy Dave Vronay, Founder and CEO

Part of the joy of the holiday season is in the element of surprise waiting under the tree. But this year, Internet shoppers are finding Big Data is playing the role of the Grinch.

Consumers who thought they were playing secret Santa as they shopped online are finding their surprises have been spoiled when ads for their purchases pop-up for family members to see.

This sort of tracking is nothing new. Sites from Amazon to Google are tracking everything their users do. Then they sell the data to the highest bidder to place a targeted advertisement.

So when a shopper searches on Google for a new camera, Google lets the advertisers know that that user might be in the market. Suddenly that shopper’s web browsing experience is festooned with banners pitching Nikons and Canons.

Privacy pundits have long cautioned about the dangers of this targeting behavior, but consumers have been slow to notice. So why the change now? Several trends are coming together that may change consumers’ perceptions.

First is the sheer amount of shopping happening online this year. The crazed Black Friday crowds have spread out into leisurely online shoppers, with brick-and-mortar sales down 11 percent for the consumer holiday. Even when in the stores, many of us have our smartphone in one hand to compare prices online. This is a one-two punch for the data recorders, who learn what consumers are shopping for as well as where.

Next are the improvements in the Big Data network itself. This year has seen the performance of Google, Facebook, and other ad networks become practically real-time. The ad monoculture means that any piece of information is instantly available across the networks. People’s behavior is being mirrored back to them so quickly in ads that it leaves no doubt of the connection in users’ minds.

Still another factor is the relentless push of the major ad networks to use so-called “social login,” signing into sites by using a Facebook or Google ID. It’s touted as a convenience, but the real goal is to let these networks gather more information about what users are doing during their time online.

Finally, we’re seeing more families embrace technology together. The shared Amazon login – to get Prime benefits – means that late-night shopping in bed from an iPad could be leaked through ads on the family desktop that morning.

So what can consumers do? Sadly, not much.

Most browsers offer a private browsing mode that can help cut down some of the tracking, but if a users signs in to the big sites, it’s basically all over. None of the sites have a way of saying, “Back off, this is a Christmas gift.” Most of them don’t give users information about what they collect at all, much less how they use it.

The hope is that the relatively benign issue of spoiled Christmas surprises will get consumers to pay more attention to the behavior of these large sites that traffic human data, and savvy consumers will start supporting alternatives that don’t track them. At the end of the day, it’s a social issue, not a technological one.

Next year, may we all work together to give the Big Data traffickers a big lump of coal.

Copyright 2014, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist


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