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We’ve lost control of our online data, and the consequences may be worse than you think.

By Joseph Turow | Toward the end of summer, The Wall Street Journalpublished an article about a woman who’d been let in on a secret that is increasingly a fact of life for everyone who uses the Internet. A company had deployed a tiny file in her computer called a cookie that enabled it to track her movements online, collecting information ranging from her favorite movies to comments typed on various websites. The resulting profile did not contain her name, but was “eerily correct,” as she put it, about many other things—her age and hometown being just the beginning. As such, it allowed the company or its clients to target her with commercial messages based on a set of characteristics so specific it verged on being unique to her.

The fact that advertisers can now buy access to, say, 26-year-old Southern fans of The Princess Bride may seem like a trivial concern. But this capability only scrapes the surface of what marketers can do, and the potential repercussions are troubling for individuals and society. Americans now live in a world where what we buy, what we tell our friends, how we spend our leisure time, where we walk or drive, and more is collected, analyzed, and linked to information about our gender, income, age, occupation, and other demographic information. Companies you never heard of are creating these profiles about you without your knowledge or permission. The information is bought, sold, rented, and auctioned by entities that use it to decide what commercial messages you get, what discount coupons you receive, and what prices you pay for products and services. In the interest of attracting audiences, media firms are beginning to consider how they can use at least some of those data to tailor the news, information, and even entertainment you receive. The companies involved dismiss concerns about these activities as unwarranted. They say their goal is to reach individuals with messages most relevant to them. And they note that much of the time the people they reach are anonymous.

I disagree. The supposed relevance of commercials is far outweighed by activities that are sowing the seeds of broad social discrimination in the marketplace, undermining people’s trust that companies with such data will interact with us fairly, and reinforcing a sense that the government cannot protect us when we can’t protect ourselves. Moreover, the claim of anonymity in all this is meaningless. 
Prior to the digital revolution, marketers used media such as newspapers, magazines, radio, billboards, and television to reach out to segments of the population. Marketers typically learned about these audience segments by using data from survey companies that polled representative portions of the population. 

The emerging new world is dramatically different. Instead of large populations and population segments as audiences, advertisers now expect media firms to deliver to them very particular types of individuals—and, increasingly, particular individuals—with a detailed level of knowledge about them and their behaviors that was unheard of even a few years ago. Special online advertising exchanges, owned by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Interpublic, and other major players, allow for the auction of individuals with particular characteristics, often in real time. In fact, through cookie-matching activities, an advertiser can actually buy the right to reach someone on an exchange whom the advertiser knows from previous contacts and is now tracking around the web. 

With these activities has come a new vocabulary that reflects potentially grave social divisions and privacy issues. Marketers talk about people as targets and waste—that is, individuals dismissed as not relevant or useful. Increasingly, they offer individuals different products and discounts based on ideas marketers have gleaned about them without their knowledge. These social differentiations are spreading from advertising to information, entertainment, and news, as media firms try hard to please their sponsors. Marketers also use words like anonymous and personal in ways that have lost their traditional meaning. If a company can follow your behavior in the digital environment—and that potentially includes your mobile phone and your television set—its claim that you are anonymous is meaningless. That is particularly true when firms intermittently add offline information to the online data and then simply strip the name and address to make it “anonymous.” 

The business arrangements that use this new language are transforming the advertising and media landscapes. Companies track people on websites and across websites with the aim of learning what they do, what they care about, and whom they talk to. Firms that exchange the information often do keep the individuals’ names and postal addresses anonymous, but not before they add specific demographic data and lifestyle information. Here are just two examples: 

• eXelate is a leading targeting exchange with the motto “data anywhere. audience everywhere.” It determines a consumer’s age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, and profession by partnering with websites to scour website registration data. It also tracks consumer activities online to note, for example, which consumers are in the market to buy a car or are fitness buffs, based on their Internet searches and the sites they frequent. It sells these packages of information about individuals as cookie data so advertisers can target them.

• A company called Medicx Media Solutions buys anonymous “HIPAA certified medical and pharmacy insurance claims data” for tens of millions of Americans that are linked to information about them from information suppliers and from health surveys people fill out. Even though Medicx cannot tie the data to particular individuals, it does retain an ability to connect the medical, pharmacy, and survey findings to ZIP+4 postal clusters of 3-8 homes. To reach these patients for advertisers, Medicx licenses millions of cookies with ZIP+4 data and then serves its clients’ display ads to cookied individuals in the targeted ZIP+4 areas. The people receiving the ads about specific medical concerns would have no clue how they got them.

What I have just described is the tip of an iceberg of what goes on behind Americans’ screens. National surveys that I have conducted since 1999 consistently show that in large proportions American adults know their activities are being followed online and are deeply uncomfortable and concerned about it. It is also quite clear from our surveys and other research that Americans do not understand how the processes that surround them work. Few people read privacy policies, which are in any event uniformly turgid and ambiguous. Some firms provide cookie deletions as a solution to targeting (though not tracking), but marketers and media firms are increasingly finding ways to get around the deletion of cookies. In addition, tools sometimes called dashboards, which firms such as Google provide for consumers to learn what the companies know about them, are counterproductive. They provide visitors with the incorrect impression that the tools fully reveal the information advertisers can use to address them on those sites. 

There are many great things about the new media environment. But when companies track people without their knowledge, sell their data without their knowledge or permission, and then decide whether they are, in the words of the industry, targets or waste, we have a social problem. A recent national survey I co-conducted with colleagues at Berkeley Law School showed emphatically that Americans don’t want this type of situation. If it’s allowed to fester, and when they begin to realize how it pits them against others in the ads they get, the discounts they receive, the TV-guide suggestions and news stories they confront, and even the offers they receive in the supermarket, they will get even more disconcerted and angry than they are now. They will further distrust the companies that have put them in this situation, and they will be incensed that the government has not helped to prevent it. A comparison to the financial industry is apt. Here was an industry engaged in a whole spectrum of arcane practices not transparent to consumers or regulators that had serious negative impact on our lives. It would be deeply unfortunate if the advertising system followed the same trajectory. 

We must move from the current marketing regime that uses information with abandon—where people’s data are being sliced and diced to create reputations for them that they don’t know about and might not agree with—to a regime that acts toward information with respect. That is where marketers recognize that people own their data, have rights to know where all their data are collected and used, and should not have to worry when they travel through the media world that their actions and backgrounds will cause them unwanted social discrimination regarding what they later see and hear. 

Until recently, I believed that educating the public about data collection and giving them options would be sufficient to deal with privacy issues related to advertising. I have come to realize, though, that Americans don’t have and will not acquire the complex knowledge needed to understand the increasing challenges of this marketplace. Opt-out and opt-in privacy regimes, while necessary, are far from sufficient.  

To help the public, Congress should recognize that certain aspects of this new world raise serious consumer-protection issues and act with that in mind. One path is to limit the extensiveness of data or clusters of data that a digital advertiser can keep about an individual or household. Some industry organizations resist such suggestions, depicting scenarios of Internet doom if Congress moves forward with privacy regulations regarding digital platforms. But in the face of Americans’ widespread concern about the exploitation of their data, a level regulatory playing field in the interest of privacy will actually have the opposite impact. It will increase public trust in online actors and set the stage for new forms of commercial competition from which industries and citizens will benefit.

Joseph Turow C’72 ASC’73 Gr’76 is the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication. This essay is adapted from testimony he gave to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation in July.

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