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EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report

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EPIC --- Privacy and Human Rights Report 2006

Title Page Previous Next Contents | Privacy Topics >Behavioral Targeting

Behavioral Targeting

Behavioral targeting is a technique used by advertisers that involves the secret collection of information about individual’s interests, actions, habits, and traits in both the online and offline worlds. Theoretically, this improves the effectiveness of advertising by tailoring messages for individual consumers. The practice raises troubling privacy concerns, as well as the obvious problem of subliminal manipulation.[545]

Systems to deliver broadband Internet, digital television, and mobile services have been designed to serve the needs of marketing. Advertisers have been in the forefront of plans to ensure that new communications technologies target individuals with sophisticated pitches, collecting lots of information about us in the process (so-called consumer "profiles").[546] These technologies have the capability to track every activity (and inactivity) of users as they surf the Internet or watch television and to use that information to tailor advertising for the greatest effect.[547] An advertising technology arms race is underway to make digital marketing more effective and pervasive. Fueled by global media consolidation, content companies are now working even more closely with advertisers.[548]

Long-standing ad industry metrics that are used to determine the effectiveness of advertising are now applied to our digital lives. "Web analytics," is used to track users’ navigation through an individual website and on the Web itself. The software analyzes how users relate to the content, and whether it is working effectively to connect users to the ad by collecting "real-time" information on Internet behaviors, including how a user got to a particular site and where they went afterward, how long they visited a site, which content resulted in interest or interaction.[549]

Cookies, tiny files placed on users’ computers, help websites recognize users online, so that they don't have to retype (or recall) such things as user names and passwords. But cookies are also linked to extensive profiling information that informs both the website and the online ad network about users’ interests, shopping habits, and behavior. Users’ IP addresses are another important piece of information which allows advertisers to engage in "Advanced Geo-Targeting," a technique used to serve ads to users based on geographic assumptions of "income levels, ethnicity, and personal interest."

New interactive television services also record consumer behavior. The new systems are being designed, like their Internet predecessors, to track every activity (and inactivity) of users as they surf the net through the boxes. They also are being designed to track the shows and commercials users watch and to use that information to tailor advertising for the greatest effect.[550] CEO Rupert Murdoch said in a NewsCorp annual report, "It will tell us not only who our customers are, but what they buy, what they watch, what they read and what they want."[551] George Orwell's vision of the television that watches you will soon be a standard consumer appliance.

Digital video recording company TiVo encountered a wave of criticism over its data-gathering practices after reporting that a certain Super Bowl clip was the most-watched moment since the inception of the service. Even though this particular report was based on aggregate information gathered according to postal zip codes, consumers voiced concern that personal information may be linked to the viewing habits of particular boxes or somehow leaked during transmission.[552] TiVo boxes collect information about user viewing habits, which is then transmitted to TiVo headquarters via phone lines. Although the data collected and transmitted by TiVo is stripped of any identifying information, the company could conceivably track individual habits if it chose to do so.[553] In 2006, TiVo launched a new division, called Audience Research and Measurement (ARM), which hands over to advertisers second-by-second customized data and analysis of viewer behavior.[554]

Internet companies, such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, are coming under increasing scrutiny as a result of the adoption of behavioral targeting techniques and the profiling of Internet users. Google, which in 2007 sought to acquire the online advertising firm DoubleClick, is now under investigation in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Consumer organizations have charged that the integration of behavioral targeting by the search engine giant will negatively impact online privacy and diminish competition among Internet advertisers who do not engage in such invasive practices.[555]

[545] Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (1957).

[546] Jeff Chester, Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy (The New Press 2007).
[547] See David Burke, Spy TV (Slab-O-Concrete Press 1999).
[548] Chester, supra.

[549] Chester, supra.

[550] See David Burke, Spy TV (Slab-O-Concrete Press 1999).
[551] Cited in Privacy Journal, October 1999.

[552] Ben Charney, "TiVo Watchers Uneasy after Post-Super Bowl Reports," CNet, February 5, 2004 <>.
[553] Saul Hansell, “TiVo Is Watching When You Don’t Watch, and It Tattles,” New York Times, July 29, 2006 <>.

[554] TiVo, “TiVo Launches Audience Research and Measurement (ARM) Division,” July 26, 2006 <>.

[555] See generally, EPIC, “Proposed Google-Doubleclick Merger,” <>.

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