When a Company Gathers Info About You, Is that Invasion of Privacy?

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If someone shadowed your digital footprints, making notes of who you became a "fan" of on social networks, keeping records where you were checking-in via mobile devices, compiling your data to decipher your intent, would you consider that collection to be tracking your personal info? If that same entity followed you home and gathered more info on what your interests were, would you feel a bit like you were being stalked or your privacy invaded? What if that so-called stalker were not interested in you personally, just the how's of making money off your "intent"?

Microsoft and others have invested $61 million in Adchemy advertising technology. Microsoft entered into an "expanded technology partnership" with Adchemy that will deepen Adchemy IntentMap technology to "help Microsoft adCenter customers create more relevant ads based on consumer intent." According to Rik van der Kooi, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Advertising Business Group, "Microsoft Advertising is committed to enriching the online ad experience for consumers and helping deliver more effective campaigns and higher ROI for advertisers and agencies. The key to this is to have a deeper understanding of consumer intent so that the ads users see are engaging and relevant."

Murthy Nukala, founder and chief executive officer of Adchemy, said, "Moving away from keywords and focusing on a consumer's underlying intent is a massive paradigm shift that radically simplifies ad campaigns and enables advertisers to address consumer queries in a significantly more relevant way, at a scale unprecedented in the industry."

Your digital identity is considered Personally Identifiable Information (PII) by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. As is your IP address in some cases. PII is defined as data "that can be used to uniquely identify, contact, or locate a single person or can be used with other sources to uniquely identify a single individual."

Adchemy has warned that by using consumer PII to "highly customized ads and offers," marketers "risk alienating consumers and harming their brand if they go too far with personalization and customization." It claimed to have a platform that "nutures" the relationship with consumers. In fact, Adchemy claimed to collect or use no PII. (See also "Protect Your Online Privacy (Without Reading All the Fine Print).")

In a past Digiday Q&A about the future of privacy and consumer targeting, Adchemy claimed that instead of using consumer PII, marketers could target consumers by using consumer intent. "Consumers express their intent across all channels -- such as searching for a product, browsing interesting websites, checking-in on a mobile phone, or becoming a fan on a social media site. Technology that works maps a structure of keywords, check-ins, social interests, anonymous demographic data and more across channels to recognize consumer intent patterns, without needing PII data. This is what Adchemy's technology aims to do. "

How can intent be tracked without connecting the dots of a user's movements across the Web? Adchemy claims to gather "intent data" from different market "silos." Gathering from varying stages of intent -- latent, activation (via product research and peer reviews), active, fulfillment (via mobile search and check-ins on social applications) -- "can be used to create anonymous, actionable target-audience segments across channels." MediaPost reported, "Consumers and marketers now meet on Facebook and other social-media outlets. As potential buyers show brand allegiances, interests, preferences, and "likes," marketers can again match products and services to the latent and developing intent expressed through these social actions."

If a company is scraping info together about you, what you "like" and mutual digital friendships on social networks, sites you visit that show your "social interests," your browsing and mobile history, your IP . . . is that not invading your privacy? I consulted a very wise person about this who told me while this may not be breaking the letter of the law of PII by correlating a person's name/address/social security number, advertisers snooping around to collect an individual's online habits most certainly breaks the intention of a Do Not Track policy.

This is a screengrab about Adchemy according to PrivacyChoice. Jim Brock clarified via email, "As for Do Not Track, our statement means that we don't find a statement in their privacy framework that they recognize the DNT header (such as implemented in Firefox). We don't have any way to independently verify whether they are or are not actually honoring it." Brock also wrote, "When an opt-out is not verified to stop tracking, this means that we have not tested to determine whether any unique identifier is left after the opt-out is put in place." PrivacyChoice says that data collection consists of "browser cookies, IP addresses and HTML5 Local Storage." Adchemy is listed as a fully compliant member of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI).

I asked Microsoft if it sees no potential privacy issues with the Adchemy/Microsoft partnership and using "intent-driven" technology. A Microsoft Spokesperson replied:

The Adchemy IntentMap does not:

- Utilize Cookies

- Use PII

- Track consumers across queries

The Adchemy IntentMap infers consumer intent from anonymous queries and then maximizes the relevance of ads and landing pages, using that intent. As such, the Adchemy IntentMap actually helps advertisers serve more relevant ads while protecting consumer privacy.

Yet Adchemy's technology platform privacy policy states, "Our technology platform uses cookies to facilitate our licensees's advertising.... Your cookie information could consist of: the time of day an advertisement is displayed, an advertisement id that shows which advertisements you have viewed or clicked on, your IP address that may be mapped to your general geographic location, and the referral id that shows the URL of the web page where you clicked on the ad." You can opt-out. Otherwise the data retention policy is "cookies that we use have a lifespan of 3 years. The opt-out cookies have a lifespan of 5 years. Log files may be kept in our system for a maximum of 2 years."

Info posted on Evidon, a "self-regulatory program for online behavioral advertising" site, states that Adchemy "ad delivery includes online audiences across search, display, social, and mobile channels." While the data collected is listed as anonymous, pseudonymous, there is also a link to the Ghostery browser extension to help protect your privacy.

I've been using Ghostery for a long time now and this screengrab is an example of how well it works, blocking 34 of 34 trackers on a particularly invasive site. I have no mercy when it comes to tracking if I feel like my privacy is violated; I block all trackers, block all ads, use Google-sharing or Tor, or other proxies, and HTTPS Everywhere, but as fast as Firefox updates . . . not all add-ons can keep up with compatibility. Marketers have to make money, I understand it, but "intent-driven" technology sort of creeps me out and still clangs privacy alarms in my head.

This story, "When a Company Gathers Info About You, Is that Invasion of Privacy?" was originally published by Network World.

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