With SmartAds, Yahoo Finally Joins Google…as a Threat to Privacy

In my dissertation I outline the quest for the “perfect search engine” – a search engine capable of indexing all available information and providing fast and relevant results. The perfect search engine will have to have “perfect reach” to deliver any type of online content from all online (and, increasingly, offline) sources, as well as “perfect recall” to deliver personalized and relevant results that are informed by who the searcher is.

For example, given a search for “Paris Hilton,” the perfect search engine will know whether to deliver results about the celebrity heiress or a place to spend the night in the French capitol, and whether to provide advertisements for Parisian bistros or celebrity news sites. This is where the search engines benefit most: by targeting the advertising to specific searches and particular users, search engines can charge much more for the targeted placement of that advertisement.

Google recognized early on the importance of designing a perfect search engine: the company’s very first press release noted that “a perfect search engine will process and understand all the information in the world…That is where Google is headed.” Google co-founder Larry Page later reiterated the goal of achieving the perfect search: “The perfect search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.” When asked what a perfect search engine would be like, Sergey Brin once replied quite simply, “like the mind of God”

To attain such an omnipotent and omniscient ideal, Google provides results that suit the “context and intent” of the search query; it must have “perfect recall” of who the searcher is and her previous search-related activities. In order to discern the context and intent of a search for “Paris Hilton,” for example, the perfect search engine would know if the searcher has shown interest in European travel, or whether she spends time online searching for sites about celebrity gossip. Attaining such perfect recall requires search engine providers to collect as much information about their users as possible. In my dissertation I go to great lengths to describe how Google attempts to capture an incredibly large and diverse amount of a user’s online intellectual activities in order to fuel the perfect search and the personalized ads that accompany the results. I also, of course, present this as a serious threat to user privacy (it’s a longer argument than I have time for in this post).

SmartAdsWell, since Yahoo is doing everything possible to try to catch up with Google, they recently launched their own attempt to exploit users’ online activities in order to deliver personalized advertising: SmartAds. SmartAds promises advertisers the ability to “leverage Yahoo’s unique data and insights to deliver personalized marketing messages and drive click-thru rates.” Sounds great for marketers, but what does it mean for users? Simple: increased monitoring, collection, and aggregation of their online activities across Yahoo’s properties. Their slick demo even shows how easily Yahoo can identify a user’s home city, track his activity on Yahoo Games, and match it to his searches for “Las Vegas travel” in order to deliver the holy grail of personalized ads.

The (obvious) privacy concerns here are covered by this (surprisingly long and in-depth) report by ABC News (thanks, David Fraser). Paul Stephens of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse summarizes the privacy concerns in the story:

“I absolutely believe it is a threat to privacy,” Stephens told ABC News. “[SmartAds] is disconcerting because it’s compiling all sorts of information about you, things that you may have done a year ago on a Yahoo site, that you may have completely forgotten about.”

By targeting ads not only to a particular search term, as Google’s AdSense program does, but also incorporating a user’s history and profile information with Yahoo, SmartAds goes a dangerous step further than its competition in creating that complete user profile, Stephens said.

ABC’s report also provides a retort by Solveig Singleton:

But according to Solveig Singleton, a senior adjunct fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a market-based tech policy think tank, these privacy concerns are overblown. So long as companies like Yahoo and Google continue to keep financial records private, internet users can only benefit from the advance of technology.

“There’s no reason that this would create any additional security concern,” Singleton said. She disagrees with privacy advocates like Stephens who, she said, “often overlook that advertising and marketing really do serve consumers. It’s not some kind of trickery.”

The belief that “users can only benefit from the advance of technology” is fraught with problems, not the least of which is her faith that “keeping financial records private” is the primary concern here. I’m not at all worried about Yahoo (or Google for that matter) keeping insecure files. This isn’t about hackers being able to gain access to my personal information. It’s about whether it is right for a single company to capture and possess all the information in the first place. And it is about the ease at which such a single company could voluntarily turn that information over to law enforcement or other government agencies, both foreign and domestic.

Singleton also tries to cast aside any legitimate privacy concerns with her presumption that any benefit users might gain by having a targeted ad appear on their computer screen is necessarily a greater good than any harm caused by the collection of the personal information necessary to place that ad. As privacy advocates, we’re not stating there is some kind of “trickery” – but rather that the presumed trade-off in favor of consumers is at best unproven, and at worst invalid.

Here’s a final exchange of perspectives by Stephens and Singleton:

“In the aggregate all these innocuous pieces of information [compiled by SmartAds] paint a picture of you as a consumer that is so complete that nobody could possibly have all this information about yourself other than you and perhaps your spouse,” Stephens said.

But Singleton dismissed many of these concerns, saying that in the long run users will take the onus for protecting their privacy into their own hands by devising new ways to protect their identity — or, if they care enough, by switching over to another, more secure Web host.

Again, I side with Stephens. Singleton’s stance makes the collection of personal information by sites such as Yahoo the default and accepted position, and forces users to take action on their own in order to “protect their identity.” That is not an acceptable set of conditions in a free society (today is Independence Day, after all) where citizens should be able to enjoy intellectual exploration and web-based communication free from widespread surveillance. The default setting should not be for the wholesale monitoring and aggregation of one’s online activities. Rather, if a user wants personalized ads, let her opt-in for the service. Make it the users choice to be monitored; don’t force the user to take action to prevent from being monitored.

There’s much more for me to say on this, but it’s time to watch the fireworks celebrating our liberty…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. michaelzimmer.org » Yahoo’s New Ad Sales System to Include Behavioral Targeting - [...] No further details are provided regarding how the behavioral targeting will work. Presumably, it will be something like Yahoo’s …
  2. michaelzimmer.org » Google Launches Behavioral Advertising System, With Impressive (But Not Quite Perfect) Privacy Controls - [...] Yahoo!, Micrsoft, and AOL have all been engaged in behavioral targeting for some time, Google’s [...]

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