The Conspiracy Theory of Privacy Violation and Behavioral Targeting

So the FTC filing against monitoring of online behavior, creating segment models, targeting and serving ads has brought up some stirring issues in the industry.  Is this actually a violation of privacy?  What exactly is being tracked?  A browser is being monitored as it passes through a web site.  Banners get served and get recorded.  Server times, browser types, geographic locations, day-parts, etc get logged.  But this is all anonymous information that can’t actually be tied back to John Smith or Jane Doe.  Its click-stream data, browser specific but it’s not personally identifiable. 


So where exactly is the violation? 


There are lots of examples of anonymous tracking technologies in our society that are designed to improve the flow of patterned behavior.  Traffic lights have cameras and timing clocks to observe traffic and better optimize intersection timing.  Digital cable and satellite services like “On-Demand” track veiwership and improve show selections. 


There are even more example of known tracking technologies – that are not anonymous.  Examples from the direct marketing realm, like catalogers, telephony companies and retailers who all track your behaviors as customers and then target you with advertisements.


But in the online space, the issue at hand is a matter of misunderstanding.  Tracking anonymous behavior to project who a potential prospect may be is not a violation.  Frankly it’s not even very accurate. Trying to guess if someone may be a potential target based on anonymous identifiers is not much different than one catalogue company selecting you based on the fact that you have ordered from another catalogue company.  What about all of the home equity loan offers you get which are because your mortgage company sold your name to a database or because Experian and TRW sell your names.  Is that not a violation?


But none of this really matters if people are busy screaming privacy violation online!  We can’t educate someone who is busy screaming about something they don’t even understand.  Read the FTC filing and you will see someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about.


But do we spend time and energy educating?  Can we really get whistle blowers to listen?  What happens when the bang wagon phenomenon starts?  What happens when more people jump in on this.  When politicians pick this as an issue to stand on?  Regulation of the Internet is a popular conservative platform.  Protecting personal privacy sounds pretty right winged to me. 


Remember in 2004 and into 2005 the great cookie debates?  Ad-Tech was a central platform for these conversations.  People were screaming about privacy violations by third-party cookies.  The industry was trying to figure out how to educate the masses about the value of cookies.  How cookies bring about relevant messaging and ads.  How cookies can improve user experience and cut the clutter.  Good energy after bad was wasted on the effort to educate an audience that was not receptive to listening.  All people cared about was that someone was watching them.  Governmental agencies declared cookie-based advertising as a violation of privacy and forbid congressionally-funded advertising from using ad servers that used cookies (see The White House Office of Nation Drug Control and Prevention). Now, two years later, 40% of all third-party cookies are deleted within 30 days of being set by adware, anti-spyware and cookie deletion practices.  It doesn’t really matter how useful they are anymore.  They don’t have a shelf-life.  The entire platform that behavioral targeting is built upon only has a 30-day lifespan and a 60% degree of effectiveness.


So do we stay and fight the battle and educate or is there another way?


Technology should always be about advancement.  Moving forward.  Take what we have and apply it in a way that moves us forward.  Reactionary with Insight.  Take behavioral targeting technology and use it to do the next big thing.  Stop focusing of prospecting and start using it to communicate with customers – people with whom you have a relationship and with whom you can rightfully communicate.


Behavioral targeting can be used to recognize, distinguish and message to known customers now.  You can pick out a customer through an online advertising customer and say “hey” we know each other.  You can entice that person to come back to your site and continue to do business with you based on information you know about them.  You can message to them with a relevant message.  Step aside from the current mounting argument from behavioral targeting, privacy and the conspiracy theory of big brother and move on to the next level.  Customer re-targeting.  The ROI is greater and the privacy issue dissipates.

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