When Roll Is Called Up Yonder, Will Ad Data Collection Fall On Side Of Angels?

On the same day Gartner forecast that “by 2018, half of business ethics violations will occur through improper use of Big Data analytics,” the esteemed Walt Mossberg wrote: "The ad industry needs to stop scooping up your personal information without asking — or even telling — you."

This is a position Walt has held since the dawn of time — and protests of "but we don't collect any PII information" simply do not work with him. He has always thought that ad data collection "is a business ethics violation."

Yet the advertising business has rebuilt itself around data collection. At first it was just your desktop navigation and behavior that was collected, but now data on pretty much everything you do in life — from mobile activities to driving, shopping, and watching TV — is being collected by somebody, somewhere, somehow to allegedly serve you ads you like better.  

Look at the size and scope of this effort, and you can't help but think if it all had been directed toward curing cancer, the disease might have been eradicated by now.



It seems somehow ironic that more than a decade into data-driven advertising, instead of users being delighted by getting the right ads at the right times, we have pushed audiences toward all forms of ad blockers (and I include time-shifted TV viewing in that category), and governing bodies toward legislation putting greater and greater limits on how data can be collected and used (unless, of course, you work for the NSA).

It would be the height of that irony if ad-data collection was the straw that broke the camel's back and resulted in a total prohibition of consumer-based electronic data collection.

Seems pretty farfetched, until you realize that you’re under nearly constant surveillance from indoor "security," street, and phone cams. Every interaction you have with media is being collected and analyzed.  Your credit card and checkout data is routinely collected and sold to power advertising. And those massive databases of credit card and shopping data seem like child's play to hack.

After a while, you seem pretty overexposed — and the easiest way to set SOME limits is to try and stop companies from tracking your media habits.

You might think there’s some solace in the fact that much of these data sets are in separate silos, and there’s no wizard behind the wall who can pull all of it together into a single, highly accurate profile. After all, advertising is still not able to expose you — ONLY to ads that interest you. And if you examine the assumptions any single source of data has made about you, you will find much of it astoundingly inaccurate.

Still, by cross-matching data sets, it is stunningly easy to build a fairly accurate profile of who you are, what you buy, who your friends are, what your medical problems are, your political views, based on sites you visit and stories you read or comment on — all the way up to how much money you make and how many kids you have. The crumbs you leave in social media alone are profound.

You can rationalize that a lot of the security camera footage, facial recognition and government-funded digital data collection is a necessary evil of the troubled times in which we live. But it is harder to swallow the notion that collecting data about you for advertising is a good thing — especially since, 10 years into the effort, it seems not to work very well anyway.

The collection and analysis of data about you will not stop. It is only accelerating every day.  Some of it, like tracking the spread of the flu or solving traffic congestion, will make a lot of sense, and you will allow it. But to get a better ad that only disrupts your media consumption?  You make the call.

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