Interest-based Advertising

After last week’s posting, Big Data Targets, about a woman employing various strategies to prevent her pregnancy from becoming an advertising target, I felt a renewed interest to explore more about how my data is collected and used each time I use the internet.  And when I say “use the internet” I basically mean using any type of web-based application, such as Gmail or Facebook, any online shopping and just general browsing.

One of the most obvious uses of collected data is for interest-based advertising, which is basically what it sounds like, advertising that is targeted to the specific interests of a potential consumer.  So example for a pregnant woman this would include things like diapers, strollers, pre-natal vitamins, baby clothes, etc.  The interests are derived through a variety of means, but as I understand it, it’s mostly done through the use of cookies, which are small packets of data that get installed on your device when you visit certain websites or click on advertisements.  This data then gets transmitted back to the originating company or service for analysis.  Data collected includes things like your IP address, which gives a general idea of your location, search terms used, sites visited, ads clicked on, etc. It’s a data mine.  Some companies, like Amazon, are direct about the interest-based advertising and allow users to opt-out through the settings.

Although I’ve known about this for some time, understanding how everything works is so complicated that I sometimes just accept it as a necessary part of using the internet.  However last week’s post, and the research I did on the topic, got me thinking about a few things:

  1. How can we have more control about who sees what we’re doing?  And do we care?  Do we like the benefits of interest-based advertising? 
  2. What is being collected?  What is the primary or intended use of the collected data? 
  3. What else can be done with the collected data?  

Some people enjoy the benefits of targeted advertising because it means they get discounts for products/services that specifically interest them. And other organizations and services exist, such as Adblock Plus, Tor, and the Networking Advertising Initiative that are more invested in empowering consumers to have a bit more control about how their data is being mined and collected.

Here is an article explaining the difference between the Dark Web and the Deep Net, and how to access them anonymously.

How do you feel about receiving targeted advertisements?

Big Data Targets

I recently read an article titled “How One Woman Hid Her Pregnancy From Big Data”.  In the article, Janet Vertesi, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, attempts to hide her pregnancy from marketers by employing the following basic strategies:

  • ensuring her pregnancy wasn’t mentioned anywhere on social media
  • only purchasing baby- or pregnancy-related items in cash so nothing could be tracked to her credit card or loyalty cards
  • using gift cards, also purchased with cash, for online purchases that were confirmed with a different email address and sent to a storage locker
  • browsing the internet with Tor, a software designed to help prevent browsing habits and locations from being collected

Ironically enough, according to Vertesi, she said that her habits flagged her as being a criminal rather than a pregnant woman.

This article might not have caught my eye but I recently finished a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. One chapter in the book mentions the work done by statisticians hired by Target to analyze buying habits of pregnant women.  Target wishes to earn the loyalty of these particular consumers and intends to do so by analyzing the buying habits and then sending targeted ads at specific times in the pregnancy.  For example understanding the best time in the pregnancy to send the expectant mother ads or coupons for diapers, strollers, clothes or other baby-related items, when she will be ready for purchasing.

From having discussed this idea of targeted advertising with my friends, based on analysis of our buying habits, it seems that there are two sides to the issue.  Some people really enjoy targeted advertising because it means they get coupons or discounts for the exact items that they are interested in.  And others, like myself, feel slightly creeped out that so much data about me is being divulged, collected and analyzed without my complete consent and awareness.

I realize that targeted ads or customized discounts to match an individual’s preferences may seem harmless and can be beneficial, but it always makes me wonder what else can be done with the data.  Or what else is already happening with the data that I don’t know about.

Patagonia: Lago Gray Glacier Hike

Last time I posted about the afternoon hike on New Year’s Day to see The Horns.  Earlier that day, we spent the morning walking to see the Lago Gray Glacier.

After crossing a bridge, I welcomed the cool, misty feeling of the forest, and the intensity of the green.  It felt rejuvenating after a long day and a long night.

The Verdant Forest

The Verdant Forest

The day before, one of the bus wheels had blown out on our way to the Chilean border. Pieces of shredded tire were everywhere.  A small square of metal had fallen from somewhere inside the bus and punctured one of the rear tires. Luckily they were a pair. In addition to blowing out the tire, something else was damaged.  I don’t remember all the details, but it was fixed with the plastic tubing of a Bic pen!

But at this moment, it no longer mattered as we descended from the forest onto a wide expanse of stones with gusts of winds bringing us a taste of the glacier, cold and frosty.

The long, rocky traverse to climb up to see the glacier.

The long, rocky traverse to reach the climb up to the glacier viewpoint.

Along the way small touches of color and wild flowers peeped out reminding me that it was summer.

Small, sunny patches of wild flowers grew everywhere, reminding me that is was summer.

Small, sunny patches of wild flowers to warm me up along the way.

We hiked up a small incline to get a view of the glacier far off in the distance.  Ice cubes of bluish, glacial ice bobbed in the water, like a strange Patagonian cocktail.  This past winter has been long and cold; I feel too chilly to show a picture of the glacier.  Brrrr.

And then we went back the same way we came.  The descent with the sunny patches of flowers, the expanse of smoothed stones, a verdant forest and the bridge…maximum 6 people!

El Puente: Maximo 6 personas!

Just to give an overview of the trip, below is a map of the route we took after landing in El Calafate via Buenos Aires.  Red = land travel, Blue = the cruise

Map of the route we took through Patagonia.  Lines in red denote land travel, while those in blue are for the cruise.

Map of the route we took through Patagonia. Lines in red denote land travel, while those in blue are for the cruise.

Los Glacieres National Park = The Ride and Perito Moreno Glacier and

Torres del Paine N.P. = The Guanaco Playland, The Horns and Lago Gray Glacier Hike

After that we drove through Puerto Natales and stopped off at a ranch where we ate a freshly barbequed lamb.  A day later we arrived in Puenta Arenas on the Magellan Straight to board the cruise.  Stay tuned for Tierra del Fuego Island and los pinguinos!

I Forgot It for a Reason

I often don’t give my brain enough credit for the processing it does each day.  When I fail to remember something important I’m quick to be self-critical, chastising my brain for forgetting.  But this doesn’t take into account the thousands of things my brain “deletes” so that I can go through my daily routine unhampered by mundane details that frankly would just clog up the gray matter.

I noticed that a lot of people use social media apps, such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to capture a moment in time of something funny, cool, extraordinary, etc. with a post and/or a photo.  Surely these small snippets in time are something that you will want to remember forever and ever.  But to me, it’s externally storing weird, silly things that I forgot for a reason. I trust my brain to go through the accumulation of a day’s memories and do some deleting so that it doesn’t get cluttered up.

A lot of stuff I have posted on social media, which admittedly is not much, is nice to have and look at, but if it wasn’t there my life would not be greatly impacted.  Maybe I should feel relieved to have some memories captured in external storage where I can benefit from having them, without taxing my precious brain to remember all these tiny, insignificant things.

In the last year I’ve read about memory apps that will aggregate timelines, posts and images from different sources, social media included, to provide the user with a “memory”.  The apps make connections by linking dates, places and people together, but this is not necessarily how a human brain would remember something.  Human brains link and connect things in all kinds of strange, meandering ways.   Maybe the trigger is a smell, a person, a type of food, or an event.  The path taken to the memory is quite different than the one prescribed by a memory app suggesting how and what I should be remembering when.

Are we losing something by keeping too much or by “forcing” the reconstruction of memories?  I’m assuming many people appreciate the benefits that come with using social media to keep track of events and people and places visited.  If my brain forgets something, I trust the reason behind it and appreciate my brain’s amazing capabilities to do this work for me.

Unsubscribe: A Way to Delete

Every time I attend a conference I dread the email aftermath because I know that the list of registrants gets passed along to all the vendors. This means for weeks, and sometimes months, I am besieged with a relentless torrent of emails advertising this or promoting that. Gmail attempts to alleviate the problem by pre-sorting emails into categories: Primary (for the real stuff), Promotions (ads and promotionals), Social (social media updates), Updates, etc.

This is useful for separating the quality from the quantity, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.   Some years ago I discovered the magic of the “unsubscribe” option listed in tiny, microscopic print at the very bottom edge of the email.  Ever since then I immediately unsubscribe to any lists that junk up my inbox.

Initially I had some reservations because I didn’t want to miss out on updates, even though most of it ended up being flagged to read later and would just sit there for months. Eventually I defined criteria about what I would and wouldn’t keep to read and started cleaning up my inbox by limiting what could come into it in the first place.  I made executive decisions, deleted like crazy and let go of my expectations to read every interesting email I received.  I also started prioritizing which updates were important and which ones I could delete, or unsubscribe to, without any guilt about it.

Unsubscribing has become part of my normal routine.  Last night a friend was telling me about her experience with unsubscribing.*  She explained that she thought of the unsubscribe option when her emails piled up because she fell behind on deleting the updates and newsletters.  Her new solution was to just stop receiving them.  Sometimes we see email apps on our friends’ phones with thousands of unread emails. We were speculating that maybe the pile up happens because people get subscribed to lists and just ignore, or delete, the emails instead of unsubscribing.

If you find your inbox getting crowded with emails you would rather not receive, or you feel guilty because you’re not reading them, unsubscribe!  It’s mandatory for email subscription services to offer this option.  It’s even available for The Deletist, but I hope you’ll keep that one!

On another note, other update options exist via social media channels that don’t involve email, but that’s a topic for another day.


*Inspiration for today’s blog!

Patagonia: Torres del Paine – The Horns

Our last hike at Torres del Paine took place in the afternoon on New Year’s Day.  Although the magical Horns’ twin peaks had been pointed out to us, they were always enshrouded in mist.

The afternoon walk commenced with a quick stop at the visitor’s center placed at the edge of a river and surrounded by fields of multicolored lupins.

Fields of mulitcolored lupins were everywhere.

Fields of mulitcolored lupins were everywhere, including some colors I had never seen before.

After the visitor center, the bus took us to a lookout point of the Horns to eat our lunch in front of the beautiful scenery. Unfortunately the Horns remained invisible due to all the mist, but shortly after, we started our hike to get a closer view of the Horns at this waterfall. The sound of the water rushing over the edge felt cleansing and refreshing.

The hike commenced with this stunning waterfall.

The hike commenced with this stunning waterfall.

The air was cool and moist. As usual, the strong Patagonian winds whipped around changing the weather from warm and sunny to sideways rain in a matter of minutes. The landscape revealed the charred remains of a fire, creating natural sculptures in every direction. The stark whiteness of the tree branches stood out against the greens, reds and oranges of the living plants surrounding them.

Remnants of a fire created natural sculptures in every direction.  Each burnt stumped was so unique it was almost like walking through an art gallery.

Remnants of a fire created natural sculptures in every direction. Each burnt stump was so unique it was almost like walking through an art gallery.

After reaching the second lookout point for the Horns, we rested waiting patiently for them to reveal themselves to us. Despite the winds, the sun was shining for a while and it felt nice on my skin. On the return, we finally got a view of the peaks for a brief window of time before the mist rolled in again.

A rare glimpse of the Horns' peaks.  We were lucky to see them as we were hiking back.

A rare glimpse of the Horns’ peaks. We were lucky to see them as we were hiking back.