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While I hate to make it seem as if I’m throwing in with the Tinfoil Hat Brigade, I did want to mention two rather disturbing trends the digital ad industry ought to take note of, pronto.

The first is a decidedly weird black box-ness regarding tracking methodology.  Prior to the rise of mobile, ad sellers would give us all of the gory details concerning how they used cookies and corresponding profiles to identify web users and their traits, and then turn around and make those data points targetable for advertisers.

In some cases, we found certain of those methods to be questionable when it came to established expectations of user privacy.  In others, we found them downright creepy and liable to get our clients in hot water.  Yet others passed muster once we had time to peek under the hood and familiarize ourselves with the methods being used.

These days, media sellers are being much more guarded with their targeting methods.  We’re seeing a reluctance to get into detail in many cases, especially as questions pertain to mobile.  We understand that there are two real possibilities here:

  • That the seller doesn’t understand it well enough to describe it to us, or

  • That the seller doesn’t want to describe it to us, out of fear that we’ll vet it as thoroughly as we do everything else.

It’s easy to tell what the underlying reason is, from situation to situation.  Suffice it to say, it’s easy to tell when it’s reason #2, and we do know about some truly awful behind-the-scenes tracking practices.

That’s the first trend – a reluctance to reveal to agencies and advertisers how people are being tracked and how they’re being targeted.

The second trend is the remarkable number of devices that are gathering data in ways we thought far-fetched or impossible.

An increasing number of devices are listening to our conversations.  We have assistants in our smartphones that are waiting for us to call out to them so they can respond and help us.  We have Amazon selling a smart device that stays in the home and does much the same thing.  We have legitimate concerns that our televisions might be spying on us.  While it may make us think we’re sounding paranoid, we would not be smart if we didn’t question where our conversations were ending up and what’s being done with them.

Recently, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed some of the ways our smartphones can be made to spy on us, given a bit of governmental security wizardry.  If there is one thing I’ve learned about the tech business since I learned to program as a kid, it’s that profit is a better motivator than security when it comes to using things for reasons for which they were never intended.

Speaking of which, with Verizon’s purchase of AOL and its subsequent announcement that AOL cookies will be merged with its mobile supercookies makes me wonder how many people realize how far we’ve stepped over the Personally-Identifiable Information line.  It also makes me long for the day when the DoubleClick-Abacus line was the de facto standard.

At a recent gathering of senior folks in the digital industry, I told a story about how I had to take a group of agency interns aside after their first meeting with a digital ad salesperson.  Their jaws needed to be picked up off the floor after watching some of their agency mentors drill in with tech and privacy questions during a meeting with a vendor.  Said vendor was using facial recognition technology in an undisclosed manner and in a setting that was completely inappropriate.  The interns needed to understand that, while this vendor fell outside the norm, the importance of asking questions exhaustively until you understand the consumer privacy dynamic is a habit they need to take with them if they want a career in this business.

Because if we don’t ask questions, will sellers always disclose how targeting data points are being gathered?

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.