Are Custom Ads Getting Just a Bit Too Personal?

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal whipped out its paddle and took several well placed whacks at a company few outside the Internet advertising community had ever heard of: Rapleaf.

Rapleaf is a company that scours the InterWebs for data about you, marries it to data provided by companies and by your own activities on Facebook and other sites, and builds an "anonymous" profile of you that it provides to advertisers so they can target ads to your interests. Sounds pretty boring, really, excep

t the Journal discovered that a) Rapleaf was collecting a lot more information than it admitted to (like data on users' religious beliefs), and b) it was inadvertently passing personally identifiable information to advertisers along with this treasure trove of data.

In short, Rapleaf is the kind of company your mother would have warned you about ten years ago, had mom been a total privacy geek. Back then social networks were barely a blip on the horizon. The big privacy threat at the time: DoubleClick and the new and terrifying spectre of "tracking cookies."

Because ad companies like DoubleClick existed on a broad swath of Web sites, they were in a unique position to get a 30,000 foot view of your Web surfing habits. All they had to do was drop a cookie file on your hard drive. Whenever you visited a site containing a DoubleClick ad, it checked your hard drive for that cookie, and added that web site and any information associated with it to its profile of you.

But Doubleclick couldn't actually identify you personally; it identified your browser, which could be used by anyone in your household. And (after a lot of pressure from privacy wonks who were also not your mother) it and other ad companies like it offered you the opportunity to opt out of being tracked, though it never really worked all that well.

Fast forward ten years. Doubleclick is now owned by Google. So-called "behavioral marketing" is all the rage in Net advertising. People are now sharing information about themselves on social networks like it's going out of style. And companies like Rapleaf are there vacuuming it all up and spitting it out to advertisers - supposedly anonymously, though now we know better.

What does Rapleaf know about you? It's easy enough to find out. Just visit the site and click the "See your info" link near the bottom of the home page. You will have to register for the site by providing your email address and a password - which is a little weird, considering that most people who'd want to know this wouldn't want to give Rapleaf any more info about themselves than they already have.

What you'll see is a long list of generic ad categories -- boxes Rapleaf has placed you in based on god-only-knows what information - as well as information culled from every major social network you've joined -- Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, Flickr, YouTube, etc.

Click for a larger view.

You'll also have the opportunity to remove yourself from any category, remove info from any of those networks, or to simply say "screw this" and opt entirely out of the Rapleaf database.

(The good news: You don't have to register if all you want to do is opt out. And yes, the opt out seems to work, as far as I can tell.)

These are all good things. But while Rapleaf boasts about its "transparency," the origin of most of this information is still pretty cloudy. How, for example, did I end up in the category Food & Drink > Restaurants > Fast Food? (Has someone been following me in the drive-through line at the Kentucky Colonel?) Or Internet > Online streamers > Photo Sharing Consumers? Is that because I have an account at Flickr that I never use?

Supposedly all of these things are "improving" my Internet surfing experience by providing ads that interest me. So that aside from that unfortunate business about Rapleaf violating its own privacy policies and buttering people's identities all over the InterWebs, this is really a good thing. Right?

Next, I'll look at just how personalized ads really are, and whether all this profiling is really necessary or beneficial to anyone.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan hates those rollover ads that play video if your cursor comes anywhere near them even more than you do. If he has to hear the secret to Warren Brown's vanilla buttercream one more friggin time he may go postal. Visit his snarky humor site eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech .

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