Trust me: you want to be spied on

By Greg Stevens on December 12th, 2012

It’s all fun and games until an ad for personal lubricant comes on while you’re watching a Justin Bieber concert.

In a patent application titled “Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a User”, Verizon lays out a plan to detect characteristics of your environment and what you are doing while you are watching television, so that they can show you more relevant advertising.

Queue the inevitable Big Brother and Soviet Russia jokes. Major technology websites and blogs just could not wait to dole out their favorite snarky fantasies about ways in which this invasion of privacy could go wrong. “But if I’m on ice cream sandwich No. 3 for the night, will my TV show me Weight Watchers ads?” asks Chloe Albanesius of PC Magazine.

“Let’s just pray it doesn’t air Plan B commercials while I’m cozying up on the couch with a body pillow,” offers Jaikumar Vijayan of ComputerWorld.

But as entertaining as it is to imagine the gaffes that such a technology could precipitate, the underlying tone of these articles is always ominous. Do we really want companies to know so much about us? Isn’t it an obvious and dangerous invasion of our privacy to have this kind of data flowing out of our homes and into corporate databases?

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But in the end, the abstract hysteria over “privacy” is a farce, and this kind of technology will eventually be accepted because it helps consumers in very specific ways. In the end, you will want to be spied upon.

More information means more competition

I have a friend who likes to throw dinner parties. At the end of each dinner party, he sets out a bowl with small individually-wrapped chocolates for people to take as dessert if they so desire. I noticed that the brand of these chocolates alternated over time: one month it would be Hershey’s, the next it would be Dove, then it would be Hershey’s again.

I asked him why. “I have a store card that I use, that’s linked to my address,” he explains. “Every time I buy Dove chocolate, I end up getting a coupon for Hershey’s chocolate in the mail. Then when I buy Hershey’s chocolate, I end up getting a coupon for Dove chocolate in the mail.” He admits that he can’t really taste the difference between the two, and he likes saving the money.

This is the underlying philosophy of targeted advertising: the more a company knows about what a person wants, the more it can do to try to win him over. Specials are offered, prices are cut, the customer is courted, and in the end it is the customer who wins.

How can the new Verizon patent contribute to this? Well, suppose you come home from shopping and you are carrying bags that proudly announce “The Gap” on the side. Would you be upset if your television started telling you about a special sale on shirts from Express, or some other clothing store?

The more informed you are, as a customer, the better you are able to find the best deals. This increases competition between different companies and drives prices down. This is how the market works. This is actually what you want to happen: companies competing with each other over you.

What’s the argument against this? Oh, yes: privacy. There is a database out there that links my friend’s name and address to the fact that he likes to buy chocolate. Somehow, that seems “creepy”.

But, in the end, it is only abstractly and momentarily creepy. The very immediate and very concrete economic benefit of improved competition, and better deals with better prices, is much more substantive. And convenience and price will be the ultimate driver of consumer behaviour.

Are you special?

I have unusual interests. I like gothic punk bands from the 1980s, for example. I have a strange obsession with the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Normally, the only way I can indulge these obsessions is by consciously seeking them out. The number of people in the world who like these things is small enough that I never see messages about these hobbies in the normal course of consuming television advertising.

But that also means that I miss a lot of things. Last year, there was a chocolatier who made limited edition statues of Cthulhu (one of the monsters in H.P. Lovecraft’s novels), but I missed out because I didn’t find out about it until they were all gone. I might well have bought one of those statues.

Anyone with minority tastes has experienced this effect: it can be very difficult to get the information you want about your particular interests, because you are bombarded each day with dull, mainstream advertising. At least, that’s how things have traditionally been on the television.

Which is only natural, of course: this is what advertisers have to do when they do not have any information about you as an individual. In the absence of any information about me, probability dictates that advertisers are better off showing me information about Ke$ha than The Cure. (They happen to be right on that one, but this is besides the point.)

That is why recommendations on Netflix and Amazon are so popular. People don’t simply put up with these companies tracking their interests: people love these companies tracking their interests. Because the more these companies know about you, the more they can make you feel special. They can help you to find that quirky thing that nobody else cares about, but that you would not want to miss.

Targeted advertising already saturates the online world. Amazon and Netflix are only two examples among hundreds. Just today, in fact, I logged in to Facebook and there in the right-hand margin was an ad for a Cthulhu plush toy.

I’m pretty sure most people don’t see ads for Cthulhu plush toy. It wouldn’t be cost-effective for an advertiser to display that ad to most people. No: this ad was deliberately targeted for me, because I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft novels, and I will admit: it made me feel special.

While plush toys are not particularly my thing, I appreciated the fact that Facebook knows enough about me to know that I am interested in things related to Cthulhu. I feel reassured that if more Cthulhu-themed things become available online, I won’t miss out on them.

Verizon’s new patent is not a ground-breaking marketing idea: it is merely an extension of what we already take for granted in the online browsing world into the world of television advertising. And you will love it, for exactly the same reason that you love it when Facebook mysteriously knows which books you like.

There is no reason that a person without pets should be subjected to ads for dog food, and there is no reason that a single male watching television alone should have to watch advertisements about “special lady time”. Verizon’s patent can help to cut out the noise.

And, for people who fancy themselves to be unique, the “ambient action” detector can take targeting one step further. Maybe it can detect your surfing trophy on the far wall of the room and show you an ad about a surfing competition in Hawaii. Maybe it can notice that you host weekend dinner parties where people dress up in Star Wars costumes, and tell you about special air fares to the next Sci Fi convention.

No matter how strange or niche or individual your quirks, the more information Verizon has about you, the more they will be able to tell you about stuff that you might think is cool.

Everybody says that they hate being treated like “one of the masses”, right? Everyone demands recognition of their individual and unique desires and tastes that need to be recognised. Well, that is what this technology is moving the world toward, and it’s why I find the privacy debate so baffling.

There’s no downside here. Yes, somewhere, out in the world, there will be a database that links your name and address to the fact that you have a strange quirky hobby. But Verizon isn’t there to judge you. Particularly not when they can make money from you instead.

If there are problems, companies will fix them

What if Verizon puts up an ad for condoms while I’m having sex? What if Verizon sees me fighting with my girlfriend and suddenly an ad for couple’s therapy comes on?

It seems unlikely that such suggestions are in either Verizon’s or their partners’ best interests. They know those suggestions are unhelpful at that time. The entire point of personalised advertising is to make the customer experience better.

There will be teams of people fine-tuning their routines and their algorithms with one and only one thought in mind: how can we make this a positive experience for our customers? So, much to the disappointment of many online bloggers, you can safely bet no company will ever decide to put up condom ads in response to a detection of “cuddling behaviour”.

Will mistakes be made? Sure. Will an inappropriate ad ever appear, or will a customer ever be embarrassed? Yeah, maybe. But this is part of the process of working out glitches in the software; it is not an inherent problem with this type of technology and it isn’t really even a privacy issue.

The scary and funny scenarios people imagine in order to raise the spectre of “privacy issues” are scenarios in which the technology is either failing or being executed poorly. But it isn’t in advertisers’ interests for those situations to occur, which is why they very rarely will. Mistakes will be made, companies will fix problems, things will improve and move on.

Most importantly, the driving forces behind the way this technology evolves will be economic and practical. They will not be ideology about privacy. The question will be: “What types of targeted advertising will people feel comfortable with, and what types will drive them away?”

The question will not be: “Is some abstract and ill-defined concept of privacy somehow being violated?”

Nothing is perfect

Of course there are legitimate concerns, as there are with any new technology, about the proper limits of information collection. Will the government be able to subpoena this data if you are a suspect in a crime? Will they be able to seize it without a warrant? Will a hacker be able to break into the database and publicize long lists of all of the people who have sex while Teen Wolf is on in the background? These are serious questions.

But that type of problem doesn’t set this patent apart from any other new technology: there will be questions, and there will be problems, and over time the system will be improved and the government will develop laws for dealing with infractions. This is how society evolves. It is the worst kind of reactionary attitude to say that because a new technology could be abused, it therefore must be stopped.

In the end, technology is driven by economics, and in the final analysis, you want to be spied upon, because the benefit to you as a consumer will drastically outweigh your abstract feeling of awkwardness that “people know stuff” about your habits and desires. So perhaps it’s time to lay down the cudgels and think about how awesome it will be when your TV knows exactly the right obscure 80s DVD box set to flog you.