Rhodri Marsden: 'If you are going to harvest my personal data, make it for something I want'

We give Google, Facebook and Youtube the data, and they give us a motley collection of offers that feels no more tailored to our needs than a Piccadilly Circus billboard.

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The Independent Tech

How did we used to manage?

I found myself saying this to a friend the other day in reference to a time before the smartphone. We all managed just fine, of course, but I was probably trying to justify the amount of time I spend looking at one.

On average, it’s three hours 16 minutes a day, according to a survey released this week by Tecmark. Watching moving pictures evidently accounts for much of that; another survey by IAB reveals that we spend five hours a week watching TV shows, video clips and films on internet-connected devices. These two statistics have one thing in common (aside from proving our devotion to hand-held flat-screens): they were both undertaken by firms related to marketing or advertising. “Would you look at the amount of time people spend staring at these things,” the results  are saying. “It’s now  time to position your products directly in their line of sight.”

The rush to thrust adverts in front of our mildly uninterested eyeballs is intense. In the last week alone, Facebook has crowed about three initiatives: a hyper-local advertising scheme where ads are fed to our phones based on our location; a means by which developers can host Facebook adverts within their own apps; and a relaunch of Atlas, Facebook’s cross-device advertising scheme, where data sets from all kinds of sources are meshed together in order to (no doubt) “improve the experience of the end user”.

Social media, meanwhile, gives the distinct impression that most end users are massively offended by the whole premise of targeted advertising; even if the data used to serve them is anonymised, they’re freaked out by adverts related to their interests and will go to disproportionate lengths to stop them. But maybe they’re just the vociferous minority. The UK ad spend on mobile devices has gone up 68 per cent in the first six months of 2014, year-on-year, so they must work. Right?

I’m not so much annoyed by these adverts as mystified by their supposed efficacy. Since looking at some underwear on the Gap website the other day, I’ve been repeatedly confronted with the same pair of pants (that I don’t want) every time I visit Facebook. YouTube, meanwhile, presents me with pre-roll adverts for an initiative to raise funds for a boxing club. What? Facebook and Google both have the capacity to know a frightening amount about me, and yet the ads they serve up are often for things I’ve already bought, or for products that might appeal to me if I had the interests that a man of my age is supposed to have. An article this week by Mike Elgan for Computerworld bemoans precisely this, saying that “personal-data harvesting for contextual ads... should be a beautiful thing”. But it isn’t. We give them the data, they give us a motley collection of offers that feels no more tailored to our needs than a Piccadilly Circus billboard.

I understand that there are economic factors at play; any advertising scheme will be forced to serve ads from companies who have paid out the most cash, regardless of our own personal preferences. But these are supposedly intelligent, data-rich systems, and yet I find it difficult to find anyone who has ever clicked through from an online advert and bought anything, ever. By 2016, however, the global online advertising spend is predicted to reach $5bn. I wish I knew how that works. I’m not sure that anyone does.