Q Thoughts

A Real Privacy Problem

By J. Habegger

The Wall Street Journal published another installment in their What They Know series on Monday, 7 March 2011. This article is about how companies are targeting video advertising using data compiled about consumer viewing habits from set-top boxes and linking that with off-line data based on the fact that the cable company has a billing relationship.

“TV’s Next Wave: Tuning In To You”

The part about this story that I find the most interesting is that it makes the concern about online behavioral targeting using cookie data look like a tempest in a teapot compared to the management of personal data in other realms, specifically by off-line marketers and, in this article, by the new technology of targeted video advertising. I’ve written before on how online cookie targeted behavioral targeting is one of the advertising regimes that most highly respects consumer privacy.

My argument is based on the fact that most cookie-based advertising is anonymous, there is notice on each website about what is happening and that that consumers can easily identify and delete cookies at any time. Consumers are in full control of the data on their web usage; if they don’t want advertisers to use this information, they have the absolute last word on the matter: just delete cookies. On top of that, as an industry, we provide easy opt-outs that make it easy tell us that you don’t want cookies placed.

Taking notice even further, the industry now has Advertising Choice that actually allows a user to tell when a particular ad is being behaviorally targeted, and the industry trade association, the IAB, has rolled out Network and Exchange quality assurance guidelines.

Ok, now compare and contrast that with the treatment of the information being used to target video advertising as described by the Wall Street Journal.

First up, by and large, advertising targeted with cookies cannot be readily connected with off-line data about you. It’s usually anonymous. In the case of cookie targeting, the advertiser knows that a computer with a particular identification number browsed a particular website. But, we usually don’t know the address of that person or their name. Cable television companies using your viewing data always know your name and address. Every program a consumer watches can be connected with the precise household doing the watching, and this fact can be linked into any online database through the last name and address.

Next, data on my viewing habits is being collected without my knowledge and without any reasonable way for me to directly control what data is being collected or used. There is no privacy policy linked to each show I watch. Most importantly, unlike cookies that I can delete at any time I choose with a few mouse clicks, there is no way for me to exercise direct control and delete data collected by the set-top box. Unlike online ad-targeting using cookies, there is no way I can control whether or not I participate in video targeting.

So, I have to rely on the opt-out provided by the cable company. Since I can’t control it directly, how do I opt out of my viewing data being collected? Unlike online advertisers using cookie data, which typically provide a link to an opt-out site that can be simply clicked to opt-out, opting out of video targeting of ads to your television requires actually calling a particular customer service number of your cable provider! I don’t know what your experience has been with cable call centers, but I suspect it isn’t radically different from mine. So, to opt-out you have to call in to a cable company customer service phone queue and wait. According to the Wall Street Journal article, Charter Communications doesn’t even provide that level of customer service; you can’t opt out.

What’s the bottom line? Despite all the rhetoric surrounding online behavioral targeting and privacy, the consumer privacy controls are not only good, but better than consumers have in most other realms. If you want to see a true privacy problem, look no further than the handling of consumer off-line data or, now, data collected by cable companies for one-to-one video targeting. Not anonymous. No notice. No control. Unreasonable opt out. Now that’s what I call a privacy problem.

Categories:Posts from 2011


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