How advertisers reach us through data collection
Facebook. Gmail. Whatsapp. Thanks to them, we can exchange information and socialise…for free.
Google Search. Bing. Yahoo Search. Thanks to them, we can find what we need within seconds…for free.
Amazon. eBay. Carousell. Thanks to them, we can identify the right market for our unused stuff…for free.
Above are just a few wonderful online services we enjoy for free everyday. However, have you ever wondered what we are giving up to deserve such bliss? This is explained in the book “Data and Goliath: the hidden battles to collect your data and control your world.” by Bruce Schneier as a bargain between Internet users and Internet corporations:
“If you let us have all your data, we will show you advertisements you want to see and we’ll throw in free web search, email, and all sorts of other services. It’s convenience, basically.”- Bruce Schneier
In other words, to enjoy the convenience and the fun, you need to generate hard as many data as possible for targeted advertising purpose.
THE POWER OF METADATA
When referring to data privacy, Internet users are more concerned about the risks to their personal data in an elaborated and descriptive format, such as personal particulars, content of messages, passwords, social media accounts, bank accounts, etc. However, they are less aware of another form of data called metadata, which is generically defined as “data describing other data” or “contextual data”.
In a text message system, metadata is accounts that sent and received the message, location, date and time of the message. In an email system, metadata is the sender, receiver, routing data and message size. A photograph contains metadata of date, time and location the photo was taken, camera settings, camera serial numbers and GPS coordinates of the photo. Web search does not produce content, but most of the time, the browser collects metadata. They are what we type into Google, our search history, time and location, how long we spend on a website, what links we click, things we purchase and the files we download.
This form of data seems unimportant to the end-users, but it is extremely preferred by advertisers and governments. It provides context for each online activity we perform and our behavioral intention. It reveals an individual’s daily routine, interactions, points of view and associations. More importantly, it does not lie since it’s generated by the digital devices. As former National Security Agency general counsel Stewart Baker said, “Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.”
WHAT ADVERTISERS KNOW ABOUT US THROUGH METADATA
Most of users’ data collected nowadays by internet corporations and telecommunication companies are metadata since it’s less sensitive but more useful. The collected data will be then shared with their partnered advertisers. Although Internet services providers do state clearly what data they will collect and what they will use it for upon agreement of service using, hardly do users pay careful attention to this. The convenience often overshadows privacy concerns.
Let’s take Google Chrome as an example. To know how much advertisers partnering with Google know about you, simply check Manage Ads Settings in Google Chrome browser. If you have the “Ad Personalization” on, you will see a list of topics Google think you might like, which may surprise you for how accurately they reflect your personality and interests. These results are all based on the metadata collected from your web browsing activities.
It’s the same story with Facebook. Downloading your Facebook archive, which may take at least half an hour, will shock you with the amount of data Facebook has been recording about yourself. Everything is collected and archived, including photos that you already deleted, connections you already unfriended or details of locations and devices you used to access Facebook.
What Facebook knows about you. Source: CNBC
Cell phone also provides a lot of insights about our daily routine to telecommunication service providers and their partnered advertisers. Cellphone has become an inseparable part of our daily life. We carry it in our pocket everywhere we go. However, cellphone can only work if telecommunication companies know the phone’s location. This means our cell phone constantly reports back our where we are to telecommunication service providers. The metadata about where and when we are everyday is valuable to many parties, especially retailers. It facilitates them to personalise effective advertising display and make their stores more approachable to us on our everyday routes.
WHEREVER YOU GO, ADS FOLLOW
Convenience always comes with a cost. Thanks to all data we generate everyday, advertisers can do what they long for so many years: targeted advertising. Targeted advertising enables advertising and services to be tailored much more rapidly and precisely to individual interests.
Long gone are the days that advertisements waited to be noticed. Now, they follow consumers inseparably, display them information about the right products at the right place and time. Once you book a flight to Osaka, the most famous Kaiseki restaurants will be immediately listed on the first page of your email, or on almost every banner of your webpage.
Long gone are the days that advertisers relied on blanket advertising to reach as many attention as possible. Now, every advertisement is personalised for each customer. What ads you see on your browser or social media are definitely different from what I see on mine. For example, as an overseas graduate student, a large amount of websites I visit are filled with pop-up ads of MBA schools and migration agencies, which, if you have never stepped out of your country, will be unlikely to show on your desktop and mobile phone. Not only the data of online activities are used for tailoring ads, but facial recognition technology is also working for advertisers. With the development of machine learning, in the future, ads will be totally customized, just for you.
Long gone are the days that many marketing efforts were put to explore consumers’ preference. Now, advertisers predict accurately what consumers need. Even more, they can shape consumers’ desire and lifestyle. Remember how the viral advertising of YSL and Dyson, for example, successfully added their lipstick and Airwrap styler into the shopping cart of millions of girls? In a series of studies conducted in 2016, scholars found that moderately accurate behavioral targeting make participants think the targeted ad reflective of their own characteristics.
MORE CONVENIENCE MEANS MORE DATA COLLECTION
The development of the Internet of Things and cheap computing allows the data collection network to extend its tentacles over digital screens to “real-world” things. Recently, we are witnessing the growing popularity of the “smart home” concept with home appliances connected with each other and with mobile devices to be operated remotely through the Internet. This wave of transforming “dumb” to “smart” things brings along an ultimately convenient lifestyle, but also allows a more direct channel for data collection and targeted advertising to every household.
We can’t deny how easy smart home devices make our lives. Air-conditioner is turned on from office and gets the room to the temperature we want by the time we reach home. Smart fridge keeps track of expiring date of our food and reminds us what items we should buy in the next grocery shopping. Online shopping starts directly with the product barcodes at home thanks to Amazon Dash Wand and Google Lens. However, as a trade-off, we provide smart home devices trillions of metadata about our daily routines and habits in every interaction with them, allowing their producers come closer to our lives, knowing exactly what we need to timely make a sale; like what Jonathan Collins, Research Director at ABI Research said: “Smart home data offers a wealth of insights able to be used to improve existing offerings, help develop new offerings, and underpin a range of services for smart home players and their partners”.
Targeted advertising can happen due to an implicit deal between consumers, communication service providers and advertisers: free, fun and convenient services for free personal data. It can’t be done without the agreement between all parties in this chain. In fact, there is nothing wrong with targeted and personalised marketing, since it helps us filter out irrelevant messages. However, as a consumer, it’s important to understand and aware of how we allow advertising to reach us.
The concern might be whether the data collection is under control and transparent, whether our personal information will be leaked or stolen, and whether the potential leakage will cause damage to us. Now that you know how targeting works, you can start to differentiate proper targeting, and decide what kind of data you are willing to offer to marketers.
1. In 2017 brands aim to predict what you want before you know it
2. Global digital population as of October 2018
3. Mobile internet traffic as percentage of total web traffic in April 2018
4. Number of digital buyers worldwide from 2014 to 2021
5. Global mobile consumer trends: Mobile continues its global reach into all aspects of consumers’ lives
6. Instagram Now Has a Billion Monthly Active Users
7. How to find out what Google knows about you and limit the data it collects
8. What is Metadata and how is it used?
9. What’s this thing called “Metadata”?
10. I checked and it turns out Facebook knows a lot about me
11. The future of ad targeting in an IOT world
12. Schneier, Bruce, 1963-. (2015). Data and Goliath: the hidden battles to collect your data and control your world. New York, N.Y.:W.W. Norton & Company