Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

The Growing Demand for Online Privacy: Will It Hamper Communications Measurement?

Online data is vital for ad networks, search engines, and communications measurement. But many people object to their loss of privacy, and privacy apps have become common and inexpensive. Will this affect measurement? Will our industry face moral or political barriers to collecting the data that it needs to function?

Last fall I purchased a season’s pass to a ski area. Ever since then I’ve been followed around the internet by banner ads trying to get me to buy another one. “You fools!” I yell at my laptop, “Don’t you understand that I already spent the big money? Stop selling me already!” The marketing robot that inflicts my personal plague of useless ads is smart enough to follow me around the internet, yet too stupid to understand what I’ve already purchased, or what else I might want to purchase.

The worst aspect of this idiot algorithm advertising is the strange impact it has on my sense of privacy and self. It’s a creepy feeling, being spied on and stalked by a incompetent sales contraption. I’m an unwilling participant in inept marketing—a helpless cog in a stupid machine.

The same sort of zombie ads follow all of us around the net. And now that the U.S. congress has voted to allow ISPs to sell our private web browsing data, that Big Brother-ish feeling will only get worse. (Read an in-depth article about the ramifications of this at Business Insider.)

Backlash: Some customers don’t want to be the product.

It’s no wonder that some people are interested in hiding their web browser activity from the corporate overlords. And it’s not just web browsing they are worried about. You free gmail users know that Google scans the contents of your emails, right? (Google has just announced that it will soon end this controversial practice.)

Popular culture has been generating more and more stories of our privacy-less dystopian future. Witness most of the episodes of Black Mirror or The Circle, the book (now a movie as well) by Dave Eggars. Here’s the trailer…

Whether our all-seeing Big Brother is the government, industry, or ourselves, a lot of us don’t like it. The backlash against online tracking shows up here, in an article by Jess Kimball Leslie about the sarcastic use of the tilde in internet speech: “What’s perhaps funniest about the tilde as a tool of mocking protest is that those being protested cannot easily track it. Say you’re Pepsi — you can’t log into Twitter and search for “~” in your mentions, as the service offers no search on the character.” (You media analysis pros out there may have figured out how to deal with this.)

It’s now easy to hide your online activity.

The good news for privacy seekers is that there are a growing number of browser apps available to mask, obfuscate, or otherwise hide your online activity. It won’t help to turn on Private Browsing, or whatever your particular browser’s equivalent is, because that won’t keep your ISP from tracking you. To do that you need more sophisticated techniques.

You once needed a hacker’s chops to set up a virtual private network (VPN) to communicate anonymously on the web, but now VPN apps have entered the consumer mainstream. VPNs are now touted as standard gear for safe browsing at public wi-fi. For just $49, Mashable will sell you a lifetime license to Disconnect, a VPN online privacy app that blocks tracking and masks your location.

Noiszy, CAMO, and similar browser data camouflage systems are also available. These send out digital noise to mask or obfuscate your browsing history or profile, the better to reduce targeted ads and make data analytics useless. I Like What I See, by Steve Klise is a similar tool. It automatically clicks “like” on every Facebook post a user sees.

The morality, philosophy, and politics of privacy.

To us measurement types browsing history data is the key to valuable knowledge, but to a growing segment of the public, use of their data is a violation, a moral and even political affront.

This conflict is captured by one of Noiszy’s creators, in its website’s comments: “I think it’s 100% legit for sites (like mine) to want to know how much traffic they’re getting—this to me is a good use of data. I work in the analytics field and actually I love data—I just don’t like AI using data in creepy ways. The thing is, there is a big moral grey area between ‘count visits’ and ‘creepy targeting based on everything you do.’”

Turns out that our irritation at our lack of browsing privacy has a philosophical basis. Helen Nissenbaum, a professor at N.Y.U. and director of the Information Law Institute, is a philosopher/privacy activist who argues that our response to violations of privacy depends on context. It’s more complex than just public or private; there are situations in which we expect to have privacy, and situations that we don’t, and the amount of privacy we expect varies. Read her paper, “Respecting Context to Protect Privacy: Why Meaning Matters.”

Nissenbaum has developed AdNauseam, which clicks on every web page you visit, baffling ad networks, and TrackMeNot, which sends a stream of fake queries in your browsing background. She is the co-author, with Finn Brunton, of “Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest” (MIT Press, 2016). Read more about her work in The Atlantic and in Wired.

The quest for web privacy can be seen as a political movement as well. The promotional material for Obfuscation, says, “Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum mean to start a revolution. They are calling us not to the barricades but to our computers, offering us ways to fight today’s pervasive digital surveillance…” In “Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies,” Roberto Simanowski describes the resistance to data mining corporations as “liberation… through data fraud.”

Why shouldn’t consumers own their own data? In “A Way to Own Your Social-Media Data,

The obfuscation of measurement?

The good news is that there appears to be, as yet, no sign of privacy concerns affecting the comms measurement industry. I canvassed a few of the measurati, but they had nothing to say about it. And even if a significant part of our audiences did block or hide their data, would it be a big deal? Over in the world of surveys and polling, plenty of people refuse to participate; that’s the rough equivalent of hiding their online data. This lack of participation hasn’t stopped surveys. Although, come to think of it, pollsters’ inability to predict last fall’s U.S. presidential election might make us think twice about that.

Still, there is cause for concern. There exists a definite push to hide not just individual consumers’ data, but to disrupt the entire data-driven ecology of online marketing. As Noiszy says, “…when we all use Noiszy… online data as a whole becomes less meaningful, and therefore less exploitable. Companies and organizations lose the ability to ‘figure us out.’” And measurement exists to figure things out.

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Thanks to aitoff on Pixabay for the primary image used in the illustration above.
Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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