Feb 262016

invasive-ads-300x168A comment in a previous post brought up a privacy concern that I’ve seen a lot, but never understood. I’ve met a number of people who don’t want the stores they shop at to keep a database of what they typically buy. For example:

>I’ve heard stories of people buying diapers for a friend and later getting mails targeted at young parents.. So even if I can’t make it impossible for that to happen I’d at least make it as difficult as possible.

I don’t really understand that hesitation. When I think about it, I can see no downside to the store knowing that I buy lots of diapers. This isn’t sensitive info. Tons of people buy lots of diapers. Why is it bad if my customer account number includes the “Diaper-Buyer” tag?

And I can see the upside – being directly mailed coupons that I find useful. Twice a week I get a huge pack of coupons in my mailbox, which goes directly into the trash without me looking at it, because it’s the same scattershot pack that is sent to EVERYONE and 98% of the time there is nothing in there that will benefit me. But once every few months I get a nice direct mail from my supermarket with coupons in it for things that I buy very regularly. It saves me a lot of money, and takes almost no effort. I appreciate it a lot.

Every now and then I see an advertisement for something I am REALLY glad I saw. A Paul & Storm concert sneaking through my city, in one case. I had a great time. I would love for more advertising to actually tell me about things I want to know about. I would even be willing to pay for useful advertising!

Right now I have AdBlocker installed, because the internet is a giant flashing billboard that is always yelling in your face. The advertising makes many sites unusable. To me it feels like a personal violation, and an assault. My time is being wasted, my attention is being stolen, and my concentration is being disrupted. This is the sort of thing that would make me suspect intentional, malicious sabotage if I didn’t know better. I despise it.

But I can imagine a world were the only ads I see are the ones that I am extremely happy to see! The ones that tell me about an upgrade to my car, or a game I’ve been dying to play is on sale, or a band or podcast I love is coming to my town. The sort of thing I would literally pay an assistant to keep track of and notify me about, if I had the money. These are good ads. And I don’t understand why I would want to make that world harder to achieve. If using a customer card can help make my life better in this way, I’m all for it.

Am I missing a strong counter-argument?

  6 Responses to “Privacy Hesitation?”

  1. Once this information is out of your control, it’s out of your control. Suppose your grocery store sells it to your insurance company, and your insurance company decides to raise your rates because they think you buy too much junk food.

    • This is exactly what I’m afraid of happening.

      I mean I can see the upside to targeted advertisement too, I was made aware of the homeworld remake that way, I bought the game and spent many happy hours playing it. Or a few of the webcomics I read I discovered through ads.

      I’m okay with my data being anonymously used. The supermarket is aware that someone buys this kind of food and that kind of sweets and this brand of beverage. They might even know that there was one person buying all three things together. So they keep it in stock or get other similar products (like with amazon where it says “People that like this product also like that product”). In my opinion they don’t have to know that it was me (by name) buying it though.

      Another example for why this could be bad, would be a potential employer going through potential employees and sorting those out that … I dunno, buy too much junk food or alcohol. Or have a machine learning algorithm do it. And at that point you might not get a job because you buy the wrong brand of toilet paper.

      So really, it’s about a lack of control over that kind of data.

      • I find it a little extreme to imagine an employer refusing to hire you for buying the wrong brand of toilet paper (even if the employer is a toilet paper manufacturer). However, I have heard stories of women (usually) being refused jobs based on belief that they had kids (which is illegal but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen), so I can see why that would be an issue.

        • That toilet paper example was just what can happen if you use a machine learning algorithm. Basically you throw in all the data you have, let the machine find patterns and make judgements based on those. And if a lot of people that .. I dunno, steal office suppplies and get caught are also people buying that kind of toilet paper then, if the machine learning algorithm is supposed to select against people that steal office supplies it might just select against people that buy this brand of toilet paper.

          Of course that’s an entirely made up example but I don’t find it or something similar happening very unlikely.

      • Ah. My idealized-self answers “Any employer that would make decisions on that sort of information doesn’t deserve my labor anyway! I’m glad to be rid of them, and I’ll be happy to see that business collapse.” But that of course assumes a huge amount of privilege. I am forced to admit that until a basic income is guaranteed to all, people generally will not have this ability to be choosy. :(

  2. I will second what everyone else is saying. It’s a lack of control thing. Remember that you don’t get to choose what ads you want to see, it is just a program guessing. If you buy an album for a band you hate as a gift, you will get ads for that forever after. If someone tricks you into going to the goatse website, then you can expect gross porn ads. And then your potential employers are told that you like gross porn and shitty bands.

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