Everything you wanted to know about “surveillance advertising” – and how to avoid it

Posted on Mar 25, 2021 by Glyn Moody

In the four years since Privacy News Online first wrote about corporate surveillance as the principal business model for much of the Internet, the practice has become a mainstream concern. People and politicians are now aware of the dangers of both micro-targeted advertising and the real-time bidding that goes with it. Reflecting the broad-based resistance to this privacy-corrosive approach, there’s a new coalition of organizations, which is calling for a ban on what is dubs “surveillance advertising“:

Surveillance advertising – the core profit-driver for gatekeepers like Facebook and Google, as well as adtech middlemen – is the practice of extensively tracking and profiling individuals and groups, and then microtargeting ads at them based on their behavioral history, relationships, and identity.

These dominant firms curate the content each person sees on their platforms using those dossiers – not just the ads, but newsfeeds, recommendations, trends, and so forth – to keep each user hooked, so they can be served more ads and mined for more data.

What makes this latest initiative different is that it has an associated Web site that draws together a wide range of information about surveillance advertising and its problems. For example, it points to recent market research carried out by GQR in January this year among 1000 people registered to vote in the US. It shows 49% were strongly opposed to companies that track behavior online and collect personal data in order to target people with ads; 25% were somewhat opposed, while 19% were somewhat supportive, and only 7% strongly supported the practice. Even allowing for the fact that the sample was quite small, and may not be completely representative, it’s clear that ordinary people are well aware of the dangers of micro-targeted advertising based on constant surveillance, and unhappy about it.

The most valuable section of the site is called “Real Costs of the Business”. It spells out in detail, complete with links to numerous articles, the serious problems of micro-targeted advertising. These include funding hate and misinformation sites through the use of programmatic ads, which are placed by algorithms indifferent to the harmful content that may be found on the sites they use. As a consequence, publishers and journalists associated with serious media sites suffer. In order to fight the brand safety threats inherent in surveillance ads, advertisers have instituted ‘keyword blocklists’. However, these not only fail to solve the problem, but they also strip funding from legitimate journalism, further undermining the media ecosystem. For example, advertisers will specify that their ads should not appear associated with words like ‘coronavirus’ or ‘racism’ in the hope of avoiding health hoaxes or hateful content. But in practice, they are merely denying revenue to publishers reporting on essential topics.

Some of the other problems with surveillance advertising are well known. For example, Facebook served ads promoting health conspiracy theories and unproven medical treatments, and even allowed advertisers to micro-target Covid-19 misinformation to users interested in “pseudoscience.” Facebook has no qualms about allowing advertisers to target their ads based on demographic information like race, religion and zip code. This opens the door for discriminatory pricing. Similarly Facebook has been caught showing military gear ads next to insurrection posts, as well as recruitment ads for militia groups. As far as the company is concerned, these are perfectly legitimate categories for micro-targeted ads.

As well as indirect harms arising from the use of the highly personal data that platforms gather, there are also more direct ones. Some companies that aggregate personal data collected by Web sites for advertising purposes then sell access to it for completely different uses – for example, to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

One important point, mentioned in a previous post on this blog, is that micro-targeted advertising brings minimal benefit for advertisers, and for an elevated cost. That’s despite claims that surveillance advertising is “vital” for smaller companies that want to reach their target audiences:

These tech giants portray themselves as lifelines for small businesses, but the truth is that they’re simply charging monopoly rents for access to the digital economy. For years, they have cashed in by exaggerating ad metrics, illegally fixing prices, overselling the benefits of behavioral targeting, and depriving all parties of transparency.

Their dominance of the ad market – built on the mass-extraction and aggregation of personal data, anti-competitive practices, and false promises – has left small business owners with little leverage or choice. Leveling the playing field will empower entrepreneurs, publishers, and consumers alike.

In this context, “leveling the playing field” means a move from intrusive surveillance advertising to an alternative that has been advocated on this blog numerous times:

Contextual advertising simply relies on placing ads around relevant content, as opposed to tracking and profiling specific users or groups. For example, if you search for ‘new cars’ – regardless of who you are or what your browsing history reveals – you might see ads from local car dealerships; if you are reading about how to plan a wedding, you might see ads from caterers or photographers. Advertisers have traditionally placed these privacy-friendly ads directly through publishers and websites, ensuring control, transparency, and accountability over where they appear.

What makes this new resource particularly valuable is the way that it has marshalled many dozens of articles confirming and detailing the problems of surveillance advertising in a single, easy-to-use site. It is also important that its broad-based platform, with supporters from many disparate fields, agrees there is only one practical alternative to micro-targeted advertising – a return to tried-and-tested context-based ads. Let’s hope that single, simple message will make it easier to convince politicians and businesses to make that move soon, for the sake of our privacy and much else.

Featured image by Jori Samonen.