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Mining the new Gold

March 9th, 2011
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The Wall Street Journal has been running a fantastic set of articles called What They Know. Today’s (15th in their series) is called TV’s Next Wave: Tuning In to You. This article states that:

Data-gathering firms and technology companies are aggressively matching people’s TV-viewing behavior with other personal data—in some cases, prescription-drug records obtained from insurers—and using it to help advertisers buy ads targeted to shows watched by certain kinds of people.

How this translates, the article explains, is that these companies are now tracking you at a level of surfing and life-involvement that is highly customizable to your tv. (They don’t have to know your name, they know who you are by your habits.) Let’s say, for example, that you watched five cookie commercials (tracked), then later in the week you bought a package of cookies (tracked from purchases). These companies will start to get a picture of how many cookie commercials (or anything else that you watch) it will take to affect your behavior. Using an example from the article, the U.S. Army tested four different ads for recruitment:

One group, dubbed “family influencers” by Cablevision, saw an ad featuring a daughter discussing with her parents her decision to enlist. Another group, “youth ethnic I,” saw an ad featuring African-American men testing and repairing machinery. A third, “youth ethnic II,” saw soldiers of various ethnicities doing team activities.

Someone will likely claim that there’s no personally identifiable information being exchanged. That will be a lie, as they could only make that claim by defining “personally identifiable information” in a very different way than regular people–or government regulators–would. This is more about tracking and compiling the most intimate details of our lives, so we can be manipulated into acting a certain way.

Coaching moment: Corporate behavior like this is an example of a slippery slope. There is no real end to the social destruction that could be wrought on our world by corporate visions of a “good society.” I doubt that any one person that works for these companies would wish to be tracked and manipulated in this way. But when that person goes to work for a company that does this, the person is “just doing his job.”

There’s a clear reason why “Do Not Track” legislation is being proposed. This story points out an example of tracking that, I would argue, crosses ethical boundaries. It’s one thing to use voluntarily shared data about people. It’s another to invade their homes and lives for corporate gain.

I might be over-reacting. How do you feel about this?

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