Targeted Ads Are the Least of Our Online Worries

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Katherine Mangu-Ward thinks people are freaking out way too much over Google’s plan to aggregate personal information about its users across all its platforms:

As it happens, we know how much people value their privacy: They’ll sell information about every prescription they fill at CVS — or every pint of Haagen Dazs at Safeway — in exchange for a steady infusion of $1 coupons. They’ll hand off information about the timing of their daily commute in exchange for a couple of minutes saved at a toll booth every day. They’ll let Amazon track their diaper and book purchases because they would rather not re-enter their credit card number every time they want to buy something.

This is totally true. I happen to think that most people don’t take this seriously enough, but who cares what I think? If you’re willing to sell information about your buying habits to the highest bidder, there’s no reason I should be able to stop you. She’s also right about this:

But if you’re more skeeved than pleased, consider letting your brain overpower your gut here. This is a fact you cannot change: All the free stuff on the Internet is possible because you slap your eyeballs on some ads from time to time. If Google and other retailers can’t scrape and sort your data to offer a few well targeted ads, there are two other viable choices: 1) Less of the free stuff you like. Like this blog. It might stop being free. For instance. 2) More ads in the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks school. Think: those annoying dancing silhouette gals selling cheap mortgages.

In fact, because of the fundamental failure of the online advertising model, more and more of the web is inaccessible all the time. Archives are unavailable, news sites are behind paywalls, etc. That’s a pain in the ass for someone like me.

So, yeah, maybe some targeted ads are a small price to pay for all this stuff being collected. And if targeted ads were the only thing to be worried about, I wouldn’t be worried. But I don’t think you need to have a very active imagination to figure out that both the public and private sectors can eventually do a whole lot more with this stuff than learn what brand of ice cream you like. Just as they can use it to offer you services, they can also use it to deny you services. They can use it to discriminate in subtle ways that are putatively based on data mining, not race/sex/ethnicity. They can use it to make decisions about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to fly on airplanes. They can sell it to marketers somewhat less scrupulous than Procter & Gamble. They can subpoena it in divorce cases. They can make it a part of massive NSA-run surveillance programs.

It’s not the targeted ads I mind. It’s everything that comes after targeted ads that I mind. I’d suggest that the rest of us ought to mind it a little more too.

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