Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Your Digital Profile and the Law of Exploitation

The work I did in the banking industry identifying different customer segments and types, so that banks could target customers with sales pitches, is kids’ stuff compared to what Internet companies have been doing in the last few years. Google search results and ads, for example, are customized for your personal biases and tendencies. If you’ve ever noticed a weird annoying advertisement that seemed to follow you from one web site to another, you’re seeing your own digital profile in action. It’s an advantage to an advertising company like Google to show you ads that you are more likely to respond to. But if the Internet provides your window on the world, you can lose touch with reality by looking at an Internet that reflects your own ideas back at you. And what’s good for advertisers is not necessarily good for you.

This is the subject of the new Eli Pariser book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. Pariser argues that we need to be more aware of the way Internet search, retail, and advertising companies filter and censor the Internet to give us an individual view of it. There is a lot at stake, he says. From a CNet interview:

. . . Stanford researchers Dean Eckles and Maurits Kapstein . . . figured out that not only do people have personal tastes, they have personal "persuasion profiles." So I might respond more to appeals to authority (Barack Obama says buy this book), and you might respond more to scarcity ("only 2 left!"). In theory, if a site like Amazon could identify your persuasion profile, it could sell it to other sites--so that everywhere you go, people are using your psychological weak spots to get you to do stuff.

It’s easy to see how Google and Amazon can build a more complete digital profile on you than the banks I worked for ever could. Banks in the United States can’t use information about the purchases you make with your credit or debit card to profile you, so they may have a very limited set of your actions to look at to try to figure out what kind of person you are. A bank typically has to figure out who you are based on your actions and decisions that are reflected in its own records — typically fewer than 100 of them. Your actions on the Internet, though, may provide more than 100 data items on you per hour. Potentially, every word you search for, every click in a search result, every purchase, the length of time you look at a product or movie, and the ratings you provide for anything you come upon online all say something about you. Of course, on Facebook, your likes, answers to questionnaires, and who you know provide all the information a corporation would want to profile you in detail. And it doesn’t necessarily stop there. The words used in messages you send and receive on the Internet are also potentially collected for your profile, as are the words spoken in voice chat and telephone conversations you have on the Internet. It’s a gold mine of information, and the corporations that collect it are free to use it to sell to your personal interests — or to prey on your individual weaknesses.

As a online writer, all the words I write on blogs and Twitter feed into my profile, and from this, it is easy to see how menacing the personalized Internet could be. A month ago when I wrote a few things about the money laundering scandals in online poker, I started to see a lot more gambling-related advertisements. It’s easy to imagine that this kind of targeting could be a problem to a person who has a gambling habit. Since I identify myself as a shaman, there was a period in which I was getting more than my share of marijuana-targeted advertisements, not selling marijuana itself, I assume, but various obviously related products. The connection between shamanism and marijuana is pretty dubious, in my view, but I had to put up with the ads across literally hundreds of web sites for months before they went away. For all I know, they will come back now that I am writing about marijuana here. But again, imagine the impact on a person using the Internet to search for help with a marijuana problem. The personalized Internet might feed the problem more vigorously than it points to the solution.

And that’s the problem with having a digital profile. It is the law of exploitation that I repeat so often: whatever tendencies you have will sooner or later be used against you. When you have a digital profile, it is more likely to happen sooner. You can’t easily keep from having a digital profile, but you can know what it says in a commercial sense just by seeing how your Internet advertisements, and search results, are different from everyone else’s.