Is behavioral advertising harmful?

The Economist published a great piece on behavioral advertising : “Getting to know you: Everything people do online is avidly followed by advertisers and third-party trackers”.

I blogged yesterday about the fact that the article raises an interesting point: industry players often take the position that since they do not know the users’ names, what they are collecting is not in fact “personal information” while privacy advocates may have a different view on this issue.

Behavioral advertising involves tracking users’ activities over time in order to deliver targeted advertisements tailored to their inferred interests. Aside from potential data leakage or the fact that as more information is attached to cookies and devices, it may become easier to identify users, what’s the harm?

The jury is still out on whether behavioral advertising practices are harmful to individuals.

Some take the position that there is not much harm in these practices. Solove, in “Privacy and Power: Computer Databases and Metaphors for Information Privacy” raises the fact that direct marketers wish to observe behavior so they can tailor goods and advertisements to individual differences and that therefore, the ultimate goal of online marketers aims not at suppressing individuality but at studying it and exploiting it. Since online marketers generally are interested in aggregate data, they may not care about the particulars of someone’s private life. Furthermore, much personal information is amassed and processed by computers and therefore, online users are not being observed by other humans, but by machines (which would make the online marketing practices less invasive and therefore, less harmful).

Others, take the position that there may still be harm resulting from these practices.

This may be the case if sensitive information is used in behavioral advertising. For example, the Economist article reports that Kate Kaye, a reporter for the Advertising Age, did some research on sexually transmitted diseases for a story, and found herself targeted with ads offering support to HIV sufferers days later. In my recent book Understanding Personal Information: Managing Privacy Risks, I discuss the fact that, if users of the same device often receive online advertising pertaining to sensitive information such as a medicine for a stigmatizing disease, they may begin to suspect that “one of them” is afflicted with the disease, therefore creating some form of invasion of privacy for the individual in fact affected by that disease or that has researched the disease. At the same time, if the information shared amongst behavioural marketers is more trivial, I am much less concerned.

Some raise the fact that behavioral profile information may be used to discriminate against individuals. Janet Lo, in her article entitled Do Not Track List” for Canada?  raised that :

Data mining enhances marketers’ ability to discover hidden traits of their customers and possibly cause them additional distress, leading to seclusion of certain vulnerable consumers.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has also raised its 2010 Consumer Privacy Consultations: Comments of PIAC on Behavioural Targeting paper, its concern with behavioral advertising as it may result in providing less choices or options to customers.

Jason Millar in his article “Core Privacy: A Problem for Predictive Data Mining”  has articulated the view that more generally, predictive data mining practices have the potential to violate our core privacy because they may expose an individual’s beliefs, intentions and desires.

Tal Z. Zarsky, in an older article had raised an interesting concern: online behavioral targeted advertising based on data mining practices may push individuals to make certain consumer decisions by narrowing the options they receive, and offering persuasive arguments at the right time to lower the resistance of the consumer. He highlighted the concern that data mining practices manipulate and threaten consumer and societal autonomy, and refers to this as the “autonomy trap.”

The Economist article discusses the fact that gathering information about users and grouping them into sellable “segments” has become important for the $120 billion online advertising economy. Until users are willing to pay for online services or mobile apps, behavioral advertising will continue to play an important role in sponsoring them.

This content has been updated on September 12, 2014 at 13 h 29 min.