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Digital Profiling Has Some Problems 2018-12-27


Digital service providers just can't seem to get enough bubbling. They record as much about their users as they can and then use the information to make as much money as they can off of it. They don't ask users' opinions about it, they just generally take what they can get. This information gathering can be classified in a few different ways, but the general idea is almost always to make money. It may not always be obvious and direct, but making money is almost certainly the goal. Facebook uses data collection to figure out what you like so that they can keep sticking "stuff you like" under your nose which results in more time spent on their site, which of course makes them money. Kijiji similarly wants to figure out what you like so they can stick "relevant" ads under your nose which of course means more Kijiji based sales, which means more money for Kijiji. Some companies directly sell the data they collect, some sell analysis of the data which is less direct, and some don't even know how to make money off the data, they just know that they might be able to figure out a way to make money off of it later.

Recently I sold a small generator on Kijiji. The offline part of the process (actually showing some guy how it works and accpeting money for it) went reasonably well. However the online part of it was disappointing in a way that I am guessing most people don't notice... or at least think they don't. The Kijiji site is saturated with ads and tracking that is intended to blend in with the actual content you are looking for to create a seamless native advertising landscape. A component of this ad style is the "Recommended For You" slider:

kijiji-recommendations Nice job Kijiji, you got me pwned.

The idea is that Kijiji will track all the ads you click on and will "figure out" what kind of stuff you are interested in. Then Kijiji can "recommend" listings that you might not have seen otherwise. Perhaps they just think you are too stupid to figure out how to use the search feature? Anyways, it seems to be Kijiji's [resonably strong] assertion that I might be interested in some baby stuff. Kijiji is wrong about that. Really wrong.

So what eh? Why should anyone care if a few unimportant listings show up when they are looking at Kijiji? It is probably packed full of unimportant listings right? Well yes... but I think it is possible incorrect profiling could be more harmful than most people generally believe. The infomation Kijiji collects about you is probably fairly inconsequential. It doesn't much matter if the whole world knows I have been looking at ads for generators, netbooks, and "personal massagers". But ALL the sites you visit are doing this. Yes, even the sites you don't want other people to know you are visiting do this. Sites you don't think you are looking at are also doing it. When I look at Kijiji [for my local area] my browser also makes connections to:

Now since ebay owns Kijiji... you knew eBay owns Kijiji right? Anyways, since eBay owns Kijiji it isn't surprising that that they would use their existing eBay infrastructure to service the Kijiji site. But some of those connections are to organizations who's sole purpose is to scrape information about you. Perhaps those sites scrape the data and sell it or share it with other companies? What if those sites sell the data to whoever is willing to pay for them? What if instead of Kijiji, it is a site that you use for more personal things? What if you have given the site more information about yourself than you are aware?

Okay, so maybe you don't care if the whole world knows about your fetish for personal massagers shaped like sports equipment. It isn't that unusual anyways right? It may be more complicated than that. There is a popular article by Forbes that tells a story of how Target concluded that a teen was pregnant based on her purchasing habits. While the story is probably bullshit, it is still true that companies (and people who want to make money) are collecting digital information about you, and are very likely trying to use it to make money off you. They intentionally make it as invisible as possible to you, and they don't care if you don't like it.

Whether you believe it or not, you are affected to some degree by the marketing tricks. Perhaps instead of a baseball bat shaped personal massager you could have just bought a baseball bat at less than half the cost? Perhaps you would simply buy less crap you don't need if it didn't seem like delicious carrots were constantly hanging in front of your face? Perhaps your interpretation of the world around you would be slightly different if you hadn't had baby items pushed at you? Instead of passing yourself off as too smart to fall for that crap, take a moment to honestly think about whether or not long term exposure to targeted content could have even the smallest effect on you. Because even a small effect means that you were changed by targeting... and that is just plain creepy.

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