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Ever had a creepily-specific ad pop up while you were browsing the web? If you’re concerned about how platforms like Google, Facebook, and YouTube seem to be listening to everything you say and watching every move you make online, you’re not alone.

Targeted advertising is a data-driven form of advertising that many online businesses use today.

While it sounds pretty convenient to be shown ads that market products and services that are tailored to your needs, things can get pretty awkward if you’re showing a YouTube video to a friend and the pre-roll ad relates to a private issue or sensitive topic you innocently researched (for example, hair loss treatments or pregnancy kits).

In other contexts, targeted ads can be more sinister. From political advertising to mass surveillance, everyday consumers may be susceptible to malicious disinformation campaigns and an encroaching lack of privacy online.

In this article, we’ll weigh up the risks of targeted advertising and the impact its making on our online privacy and society as a whole.

How targeted ads work

To build a profile of each potential customer and their preferences, marketers use tracking tools such as browser cookies and pixels to collect a range of data about online users.

Data sources can include personal information pulled from social media profiles; browsing history and search queries; products and ads you’ve previously clicked on; and your purchase history with online retailers.

Once these tools have gathered and shared this information with online advertising networks, you’ll start receiving ads targeted to you.

The dangers of targeted ads

Besides making for some embarrassing conversation when someone else uses your phone or computer after a long day of idle browsing and shopping, targeted advertising can be considered as another form of mass data surveillance, and even manipulation.

Here’s just a few examples where targeted advertising has strayed into dangerous and unethical territory:

  1. Junk food advertising targeted to young children.

    Most young kids playing on an iPad don’t know any better when they’re presented with tempting imagery of candy and fast food – and what’s to stop them from watching when they’re already binge-watching their favourite YouTube channel?

    The frequency with which children are exposed to advertising today is concerning, particularly as some studies have suggested that exposure to junk food advertising can contribute to unhealthy eating habits.

  2. Discriminatory targeting

    Facebook Ads is one of the most powerful advertising tools available for small businesses, however it’s targeting and ad optimisation features have been criticised for perpetuating racial biases and inequality.

    A study that was released in 2019 revealed how the Facebook algorithm could skew the delivery of ads for employment and housing opportunities “along gender and racial lines”, which in turn violates antidiscrimination laws.

    Even if an advertiser didn’t intend to exclude certain ethnic groups, experiments conducted by the researches involved in the study indicated that the Facebook algorithm would optimise the ad in a way that reduced its exposure to one demographic while increasing it for another.

  3. Creating filter bubbles

    The content we see and engage with everyday online is increasingly personalised to the demographic information, interests, and preferences we’ve shared online through our digital footprint.

    Google does this well by factoring in location information, past search history, and other data sources (such as your Google account) to customise your search results.

    Facebook again does the same thing for your News Feed, analysing which posts, friends, and pages you interact with the most to upweight both organic and promoted content they believe you’d be most likely to engage with.

    An example of where content personalisation and targeted advertising was taken to the extreme was the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal.

    By harvesting the personal data of millions of US-based voters, CA and their clients were able to use this information for targeted disinformation campaigns and, to some extent, influence the outcome of the 2016 US election.

There’s also the question of whether today’s privacy laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), could have prevented the abuse of our personal data from corporations like Facebook.

While the laws have certainly introduced stricter regulations around data processing and mitigated the different risks outlined above, it takes two to tango.

It’s a common knowledge that most people never bother reading a website’s privacy policy or terms of use, and most are happy to sign over their personal data to Facebook if it means it’s free to use, forever.

Until consumers become more educated about their data rights and what they’re really exchanging in return for access to these platforms and services, tools like targeted ads and content algorithms will continue to thrive and create opportunities for bad actors to abuse their data.

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