Commentary

Advertisers Track Data, Privacy Is Intact

In 2012, IBM published a white paper that stated “90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years.” That was more than year ago. Information increases at a rate of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. This surge of data we’ve created via social platforms, credit cards, loyalty programs and the like has gotten consumers, advertisers and governments embroiled in a global debate about privacy.

The conventional fear is that privacy is in some way being infringed upon by advertisers. It’s unfortunate that connotations of a word like tracking," which has now become the common nomenclature for the practice of digital data collection, was overlooked by software companies. Who could have predicted a word’s volatility?

What the general population of Web users don’t understand is, from the advertising industry perspective, privacy is intact. The truth behind market research and analytics is that 100% of the data we work with is completely anonymous. We look at large aggregate data sets to determine patterns of behavior and consumer preferences. What we don’t do is look at it as personally identifiable information, like phone numbers, family names, or email addresses.

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Why do we do this? We want to be relevant to the consumer: The right message at the right time to the right people.

When consumers allow advertisers to collect data on Web browsing activity, advertisers can better target their customers and provide relevant Web experiences. This is the value exchange — a concept that has roots in economic, sociological and psychological thought. I give you something, then, you give me something in return that I value more.

Have you ever seen an advertisement appear on Facebook that was completely dissonant with you and your personality? This is the result of marketers not having enough data and insight on their consumer base. The digital advertising medium is not going away. Without tracking, ads will essentially be a crap shoot.

Of course, digital analytics is a fledgling industry, and we are imperfect in this practice. Most marketers know the unfortunate anecdote of the retailer Target accidentally divulging a daughter’s teenage pregnancy through analytics.

As we forge through this brave new world of optimization and personalization, advertisers must be hyper-vigilant about protecting the identity of consumers and toeing the line between relevant and creepy.

There are no black-and-white answers, and there is always pain with progress. Personally, I prefer not to return to the age of irrelevant ads, dumb search engine results, or manually managing my own content on news publications, financial institutions, medical records, real estate searches, craigslist, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Ebay, social networks, Spotify… you get the picture.

1 comment about "Advertisers Track Data, Privacy Is Intact".
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  1. Stephen C. Baldwin from Steve Baldwin Associates, June 24, 2013 at 11:55 a.m.

    "We look at large aggregate data sets to determine patterns of behavior and consumer preferences. What we don’t do is look at it as personally identifiable information, like phone numbers, family names, or email addresses.

    The crucial problem is that it is relatively trivial to draw enough inferences from this "aggregated" data to conclude -- with a high degree of accuracy -- the identity of an individual. While your firm may not be drawing such inferences, another firm (or government entity; remember, the FBI and other law enforcement entities are huge buyers of commercial data) may be doing exactly this.

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