Blurred assumptions

An introduction to the complicated relationship between digital advertising and user privacy

Late in 2019, the New York Times launched the “Privacy Project”, a monthlong series of in-depth articles discussing technology and the possible futures of a society who is virtually moving the majority of its activity to the world wide web.

And as the Covid-19 crisis hit, this shift became even faster, with businesses relying on third party softwares like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, just to name a few, for their everyday duties.

It’s the first time that a magazine formally rises concerns about the current state of technology through an exhaustive collection of articles delving into a vast variety of topics, spanning from breaking up Facebook, to James Orenstein opinion on how the cyber-surveillance is challenging our current legal system and the astonishing report of Stuart Thompson and Charlie Warzel with the infamous title: “One Nation, Tracked”.

As already introduced in my previous article “Hacking The Cyberspace”, we live in a post-internet society. Where post- serves as a shorthand to indicate that internet has changed: “15 years ago the internet was an escape from reality. Now reality is an escape from the internet”. In this new cyber reality, the boundaries of privacy have become blurred and its future is in doubt. Any interrogation aimed at assessing how the internet has changed faded behind a more urgent question: is our society making the wisest tradeoffs within these changes?

Every innovation comes with its downsides. Therefore where the hyper-digitalization of human life presented great business opportunities for some, some others less virtuous examples of how technology innovation can be exploited have shaken the public opinion in the past years. Most of the noise concentrated around the topic of users’ data, what we can do with them, how we can protect them and who owns the rights on them.

Among the two factions, a good chunk of people, for the position they fulfill in society, is constantly called to oppose questions aimed at challenging the invisible limits of innovation. Some of these guarantors take the form of regulations, like European’s GDPR, some others present themselves as acronyms, like the DAA (Digital Advertising Alliance) or the EDAA (European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance). And then there are magazines, movies, columnist and an infinite list of people who are constantly rising concerns about our privacy online.

One of these guarantors’ favorite subjects is advertising, as if the almost fetishist relationship advertising people have with data would serve as a proof to convict them as the worst culprits behind the lack of ethics of some practices used for harvesting users’ data.

As always, the problem is more complex than it shows. Many of the concerns raised are indeed oriented not so much towards those practices itself, as towards the possible use someone could do with the information collected.

Once again, the problem seems to be much more related with trust than it is with innovation, technology, the digitalization of life and a bunch of other related topics that too often are dragged into this conversation.

Trust is so intricate with the number of actors that simultaneously interact in both the offline and online world, that so many questions can be raised from a single word.

Do users trust brands? Do brands trust agencies who provide insights about costumers? Can metrics be trusted? If yes, why? And why many business rely (trust) metrics so much while others don’t?

The more questions we rise, the more we realize how critical it is for us to exist into an infrastructure that rely completely on the trust in the network.

What follows is a fictional sales pitch inspired by The New York Time’s Privacy Project. A discussion that may happen between an hypothetical client (who at the same time is a costumer itself) and the sales person of a company specialized in location-based advertising.

Sales:

‘Good morning and thank you for reaching us out. I am in charge of costumer outreach. I will be guiding you through our service and how it can help you improve your business. Would you start by telling me a bit about your company? ’

Client:

‘Hello. Yes so, we are a company operating in the beverage industry. Our core product is an organic non-GMO energy drink, made of hand-picked ingredients by our own laboratories in based in UK. We created this secret formula to help our costumers unlock their natural potential by giving them the energy they need without compromising their health. Our main target is middle-aged corporate employees although we need to figure out a way to reach new costumers. Especially Millennials, who according to some reports, are rising their attention towards organic products, spending an increasingly amount of money for their health. Overall we are looking for a way to rise awareness of our brand in them.’

Sales:

‘All clear! I’m sure we can come in help. Our company is specialized in location-based advertising. Our network of partners provides us billions of location data that we use to optimally place our client’s adverts online. You will be surprised to see how accurate we can get.’

Client:

‘I’m not sure I know what you are talking about 🤔. Who are those partners? And how do you get such information?’

Sales:

‘We rely on a network of applications that constantly monitor the users’ location. You know, every time you download a new app you are asked some permissions you have to agree with. Among these there’s location. Once a user agrees on sharing its location, this data is collected and sent to our servers and we use them to return relevant contents for that user.’

Client:

‘But why would someone agree with giving you such information?’

Sales:

‘Well, they don’t really know who they are giving them to. There is a constellation of location data company quietly collecting precise movements using software that comes with your mobile phone apps. They are invisible as they are marked under the voice “third part”. And for some services location is essential: think about the weather app. So people just hit ‘Accept all’, but in truth, it’s all in the privacy policy, if you read it.’

Client:

‘Why is that different from internet advertising?’

Sales:

‘Location on phones is real time. You can get way more valuable insights from your costumer’s phones than you can get from their clicks. You are 24/7 present in your costumers’ life.’

Client:

‘Wait. This sounds a bit intrusive, isn’t it? And I’m wondering whether this is legal or not.’

Sales:

‘I disagree. Where some people see danger, we see opportunities. We urgently need to move on from the boring ecosystem of irrelevant banners popping up on websites. People always claim for meaningful relationships with their brands: so that’s what we are giving them. 24 hours a day we provide relevant contents to costumers. And today it’s perfectly legal to collect and sell all this information in the United States, as it is in most parts of the world. No federal law is being broken.’

Client:

‘Mmm, I see. But then the risk is to become overweeningly present in people’s lives. And if my costumers would even remotely feel they privacy being violated, they would certainly get pissed’.

Sales:

‘Again, I have to disagree. You are not violating their privacy as there is an underlining agreement between you and your costumers: you’re letting them use free apps and they agree on sharing with you valuable informations. That’s how the business work.’

Client:

‘Then what would you do with all these information? I mean, location data are not so valuable for me as I already know who my target is and where to get them.’

Sales:

‘You think you know. Your target is not what you see, it’s what you don’t see. And location data gives you exactly that. If someone goes running everyday at the X hour, listening to Spotify, then it’s pretty much likely that she’s going to be interested in your energy drink. Especially if she goes in that specific area of the city where all those fancy people runs.’

Client:

‘Actually, that makes sense.’

Sales:

‘And how about crossing information: people who shop at Wholefoods and enjoy running? This will narrow down your target even more. Or, talking about Millenials, people who go to school and attend yoga classes at the park. By tracking the everyday path, we can even know where someone lives, and virtually deliver the message directly to his postal code. As I told you, we can get very accurate.’

Client:

‘That doesn’t make me comfortable at all. And like me, many of the people I know won’t agree on sharing such valuable information. Especially Millenials, they are constantly worried about their privacy and what they share on social media, what their possible employer may deduce from their social profile. How do you make them feel comfortable with this?’

Sales:

‘There are plenty of self-regulatory policies. I’m not gonna go through all of these. Just you know they’re there, and we follow them. We are transparent. We don’t steal data, we harvest them. And then, the power of brands on young costumers is so seductive that it blinds them to the possibility that there is another way to get the benefits of the technology without the invasion of privacy.’

Client:

‘This time I disagree. Young people are getting more and more aware of what Facebook, Google and other companies have done with their data. They are starting to hate them’

Sales:

‘Yet, they are still on Facebook. They still love Instagram. They use Google to log-in faster. As it is the current state of things, all those things are legal. And we do operate in full legality. Really!

Of course bad things have happened, but that’s not the normality. The AdTech market is complex, but we are here to simplify it and deliver the best service to you. Right now, the most valuable information we can provide is location. It’s a matter of time ‘till we will be able to go any further. Clients need it, because they deserve a better online experience.’

Client:

‘Do you really think this is any different form putting a billboard inside gyms, schools or shops (perhaps Wholefoods)? I mean, that’s the original purpose of location in marketing.’

Sales:

‘The first reason to join us is because your competitors already did. Everyone is in this. We are making internet a better place.

Sure, probably we are not fully considering the risks in it, but for now is yielding us a lot of money.

And you also have to consider that people in the marketing division loves metrics: they give them the illusion of control. And we use this illusion to make even more money.

Corporations love numbers as well, as they feel the risk of uncertainty reducing under the previsions made by numbers. Most of the time we hit right, but sometimes, when we report back to them, we have to game a bit the data, so they’re more happy.

Yet their business seems to be fine, internet ads are becoming more relevant for costumers, and we are storing tons of data. Don’t get me wrong — there is not a specific reason for us to do so. But you know, just in case things in the business changes, we have to be ready.

Being on the sideline is inevitable for us, but it’s our job. A risky one, as many out there.

Client:

‘I’m still not sure whether I can trust you or not yet. Every assumption in this conversation is so blurred. I think what I need right now is one of my fresh energy drinks and a quick scroll through my Instagram. Perhaps, I will find the solution in there. Thank you for your time!’

Interested in Design, Media Studies and Modern Philosophy. Bocconi alumnus recently graduated from UAL — London College of Communication