I was reading Consumer Reports about how goods are marketed using algorithms. In simple terms an algortithm is like a recipe. Step-by-step, you follow the instructions and, if the recipe is correct and you have followed the intructions correctly, you will achieve the desired outcome (e.g. a German chocolate cake). Gastronomic dreams aside, I was reminded of the meme, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product." Or as they used to say, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" --- a phrase that originated in the 1930s refering to the ploy used by saloons to attract customers who might be tempted to order a few drinks.
So, exactly how is this done? What is the algorithm being used by marketers to stimulate your spending behavior as well as their profits? In a word, “targeted ads” so that when I visit a website supported by adverisements, I will see ads tailored to my browsing history that have been selected by an algorithm.
I remember when, in the early stages of the Google mail app, there were ads on a sidebar along with the email responses which I accepted as the cost of doing business. However, one fine day while reading the email response I had received from a friend a response to the question, “when are the Jewish Holidays this year?” I noticed the ad was, “Learn Hebrew!” Now there was a targeted ad that made me laugh. Upon further reflection I wondered how Google knew the contents of my initial email so that it could search its list of advertisers for the appropriate response. Then I remembered that Google was embroiled in a controversy over the privacy of its email customers. Google had openly admitted that it had an algorithm that took your email as input, searched for key words (like Jewish) and then tailored the ads to reflect these key words.
The public reaction to this scheme was basically, “What!!! The computer is reading my emails? What happened to Privacy?” and so forth. Google’s response was to point out that while the algorithm was searching for keywords, it was not trying to analyze content; it was not really Reading because it had no understanding of what was written and furthermore, the analysis was destroyed after the ads were chosen. Well, as you may suspect, this explanation did not mollify everyone. How do we know that Google is not going to use this analysis to exploit us --- all we have is their word. It comes to down to the basic question of trust and since Google’s motto at the time was, “Do no evil” and besides, Gmail had become a necessary convenience, and so the controversy soon blew over. Unfortunately everything old is new again: Google mail is redesigned to put ads into your inbox and while they are labelled with the word “ad” in very small font, the odds are greater that you’ll open an email than read a sidebar ad.
Unfortuneately, this issue has evolved to a more insidious situation whereby your profile and preferenes are shared across websites so that ads can even more targeted. Data such as your web visitation history and what you purchased at which website as well as other personal information can be shared with other sites using a mechanism cleverly called a “cookie”. Who could be against a cookie? Who does not have fond memories of cookies and milk at bedtime? There are two kinds of cookies that every Internet user should know about: First and Third party cookies. First party cookies are useful and not dangerous if they are encrypted. They can store your password so you don’t have to type it in every time you log on as well as remember where you left off the last time you visited the site. Third party cookies, however, have the capacity to invade your privacy by constructing a list of your browsing history. You can block these cookies by searching on the phrase, “How do I disable third party cookies?”
I must admit mixed feelings about cookies and targeted ads: if I’m going to get ads as the price I have to pay for using an app then i’d rather they be based on my interests rather than some random selection. On the other hand I don’t need to be reminded that, “ Here is a product that you didn’t know you needed”.