Online advertisers are getting better at identifying you

Privacy advocates say consumers need to be aware of what that means

Targeted advertising is becoming increasingly effective, which is why you may be bombarded with ads for a product within minutes after searching its category online. To some, it’s merely creepy but to others it can pose an invasion of privacy.

According to the online publication The Markup, advertisers are getting highly personal. Its analysis of 650,000 audience segments shows advertisers could, if they wanted to, identify you as a “heavy purchaser” of pregnancy test kits and target you with ads accordingly.

Privacy experts say as online advertising becomes increasingly granular consumers’ privacy is at risk.

"There have been examples of privacy harms from data gathering and targeting of advertising over decades, a classic example being unrequested coupons for expectant mothers based on spending habits inadvertently informing other household members,” said Richard Watson-Bruhn, the U.S. head of Digital Trust & Cybersecurity at PA Consulting. “The challenge is a balance of the privacy harms and expectations of a consumer with a consistent desire many of us have for personalized experiences and offers.”

Awareness needed

The experts we consulted agree that consumers need to be aware of the dangers of revealing too much personal health data online. 

Laura Macdonald of Carecircle, an app for privately sharing health information, says there are 70,000 Google health-related searches a minute and 300 million in Facebook health groups. She says collecting that data is not only invasive, but it could also be costly.

“The concern is that private health insurance groups, in particular, might have an interest in determining lifestyle or familial history to influence decisions about someone’s insurance coverage as well as targeting ads to these people,” Macdonald told ConsumerAffairs. 

“Even health forums that are used by charitable groups around the world are effectively running a smash and grab of people’s health data, onboarding hundreds of thousands of users with the express intention of selling that patient data.”

On the plus side, Macdonald says the dangers of sharing or revealing health data and health-related queries online are becoming more apparent to the average consumer. But it’s easy to let your guard down, especially when offered a “free” app. To acquire the app, a consumer must agree to provide a lot of data.

Matt Voda is a consumer privacy advocate, and the CEO of OptiMine, a marketing software company that prioritizes consumer privacy. He says some big tech companies are beginning to take users’ privacy more seriously.

Apple leads the way

“Apple began preventing the collection of personal data through its App Tracking Transparency initiative in the last 18 months and giving users more transparency over what apps were collecting and giving users more control over which apps can and cannot collect this data,” Voda told us. “And many of the major browsers have given users more controls over their privacy, including Bing, Safari, Firefox and Brave.”

Voda says Google will stop all individual user tracking in Chrome next year, which he says will greatly limit user browsing data from being collected by other technology providers. Social media apps, he says, still collect and sell a lot of user data. That leads some experts to conclude there isn't anything you can do to protect your privacy.

Arun Kumar, executive vice president for Data & Insights at Hero Digital, says advertisers are currently collecting more data on consumers than they can possibly use. He says it would benefit consumers if advertisers didn’t collect data just because they can.

“What advertisers should and could do is think about how they plan to use that data and how they plan to deliver value to the customer through that data first,” Kumar said. “That’s what should determine their data collection strategy. Right now, they are trying to collect as much data as they can and then figure out a use case for it.”

Security risks

Richard Gardner, CEO of Modulus, says there are security risks associated with databases teeming with personal data on millions of Americans. How is the data protected, he asks?

“The sheer volume of consumer data that advertisers gather makes them prime targets for hackers,” Gardner told ConsumerAffairs. “When data breaches do occur, they can expose individuals to a host of dangers, not the least of which is providing enough fodder for social engineering attacks.”

Gardner says consumers can add some protection by adjusting their privacy settings on devices, browsers, and social media profiles. Whenever given the choice, he says to opt out of targeted advertising. 

Do advertisers even realize they are being intrusive? Joe Karasin, the chief marketing officer and founder of Karasin PPC, says they might not. He also says they may have the best of intentions.

“Most advertising companies are only interested in making content that is relevant and useful to the consumer, so from that perspective there isn't an issue,” Karasin said. 

He agrees with Gardner that the problem arises when advertising companies do not properly protect the data they have collected. It makes it all the more important for consumers to be careful about the personal information they are willing to share.

“Additionally, it is smart to keep in mind that if the product or service is ‘free,’ then your data becomes the product,” Karasin said.

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