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Watching You, Watching Me

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Watching you…watching me…

I’ve posted here at Over Easy about companies that track our travels on the Web to display ads customized to our interests. They often use cookies, so if you price out an upscale cruise or golf club on one site, ads for cruises or golf clubs follow you around the Web. There are other tracking tools, too, and it is a running battle to stay ahead of them. They’re getting even more intrusive and personal, and it is unsettling to comprehend their reach.

More and more online marketers attempt to track us offline too, by collecting data about our daily lives and habits. According to a fascinating Wall Street Journal investigation, one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. NOTE: To avoid the paywall to the WSJ article, Google “The Web’s New Gold Mine” and click on the link to the article, which should be the top hit. (Also see the note at the end of this post.)

Here’s but one way this works — there are many others as the technology gets more sophisticated.

  • A retailer collects the email addresses of its customers. It’s why stores keep asking for our email, and sometimes offer a small freebie to entice us to provide it. They especially like to get email addresses of their big spending customers.
  • A digital marketing firm locates customers online when they use their email address to log into a website that has a relationship with the marketing firm. This website allows the firm to put a tracker — a long string of letters and numbers — on the the customer’s computer.
  • When the customer goes online to the retailer’s website, they see a customized version of the site that shows offerings especially tailored for their (high-spending) interests.

Tracking people using their real names is known as “onboarding,” and it’s not used only for retail activity. (“Onboarding” is more commonly a term for integrating a newly hired employee into a work environment. In this context it is data onboarding.) According to LiveRamp, a major provider of data onboarding recently purchased by our old friend Acxiom (remember them??),

Our customers send us large ‘offline’ datasets of user records for us to deliver anonymized versions of these records to an ‘online’ destination, such as an ad network or data management platform. By ‘online,’ we mean that the data record is anonymized and associated with a browser or device, enabling the customer to run ad campaigns that retarget their audience, or to measure offline conversions in response to an online campaign.

In 2012, ProPublica documented how Microsoft and Yahoo sell politicians access to us. Back then, Google and Facebook told ProPublica they don’t offer these political matching services. But since then, Facebook and Twitter started offering onboarding services that allow advertisers (presumably including politicians) to find their customers online.

Another firm in the “onboarding” space is Lotame. According to the WSJ investigation, this is how it works:

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."