US Insights

Big Data-driven campaigns put privacy at risk in politics

Elizabeth Wilner

US Editor

Politics 11.05.2013 / 15:00

Person using a mobile phone

Political advertisers merging data to target ads are subject to privacy laws

WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell, as CEO of the world's largest advertising and communications company, recently told the Wall Street Journal that corporate CEOs are lit up - "incandescent," Sorrell said - about the NSA's surveillance activities because of possible fallout for the collection of the Big Data advertisers increasingly rely on for targeting purposes.

Corporate advertisers aren't the only ones whose efforts could be curbed by an increasingly pro-privacy, surveillance-skittish environment. Now that political advertisers are merging data about people's purchasing, online and past voting behavior to better target their ads, their work is subject to laws and public sentiment about privacy - with the latter being goosed by a hyper-sensitive news media. "The number of articles you see about privacy are at a level never seen before," says Brooks Dobbs, chief privacy officer of WPP's KBM Group.

Tech companies already are rolling out new privacy-friendly products and marketing campaigns. (Including against each other: "Is Google breaking wiretap laws when they read your Gmail?" asks Microsoft in its famous "Scroogled" ad campaign against its arch rival.)

While these efforts may ease consumers' and regulators' minds, they also may have the effect of making political targeters' jobs more difficult. New technological tools that help protect people's identities, which Dobbs notes are often set up as default options, are likely to curb digital advertisers' efforts. One by one, the big web browsers are turning off cookies. The slow extinction of cookies compounds the already growing challenge digital advertisers face in ascertaining whether the voter they're messaging to today is the same voter they'll try messaging to tomorrow. Now that people own smartphones, tablets and laptops, targeting ads to the same pair of eyes across all these devices is getting tougher.

"The tools we've always used to record this information and maintain it are going away," says Dobbs, who points to movements of all four major browsers to possibly limit third-party cookies, the rise of in-private browsing, and increasing use of ad blocking technologies. Also, new "Do Not Track" signals, which can be introduced into people's online routines through a variety of sources, may also affect what can be collected and stored.

The biggest risk to the gathering of consumer purchasing behavior, on the other hand, is probably PR fallout from high-profile misadventures in Big Data. The NSA's lingering Edward Snowden problem may be the biggest of all. But in 2012 came the revelation that Target, using its own data, figured out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did; the irate dad showed up at a Target to complain about the coupons for baby gear that were arriving in the mail. Last week, tech journalist Adam Penenberg wrote a chilling account of how he challenged some hackers to investigate him and see what they could find out. The answer: just about everything.

Just because President Obama's campaign didn't commit any privacy fails in 2012 doesn't mean some campaign won't in the near future. Analytics experts may believe that compliance with privacy laws is baked into the data they buy and that the burden is on the data vendors to comply, not on them. That would be a naïve assumption given how quickly the Big Data universe is evolving, how fast campaigns move, and their single-minded emphasis on the conclusions drawn from the data.

Of all the types of data an advertising or political campaign is likely to use, television viewership data is the most secure and the least invasive, says Ellen Dudar, co-founder of FourthWall Media, which profiles TV viewing behavior. Not only does the regulated TV industry understand its stewardship responsibilities; it specifically restricts the use of personal information and relies on other techniques to describe audiences and target them with the right messages.

Other, newer sources of data may not come with the same privacy safeguards. When you opt in for a mobile app and keep it running, who knows what you're really opting in for? Also, vendors of these data may not be as used to ensuring privacy from start to finish. And many campaign analytics experts themselves come from the online world where the implicit pact between providers and users is free products in exchange for the amassed personal information.

Anyone who works with Big Data emphasizes the conclusions drawn from the data over the process itself. As Dobbs suggests, it can be difficult to tell from the conclusions what the actual sources of data were. For political targeters working at hyperspeed, that also can make it difficult to identify the point where the privacy line was crossed, either legally or in the court of public opinion. The fact that the line itself moves based on developments and sentiment can make it tough for a political advertiser to keep track of exactly where it is.

Source: Kantar Media

Editor's Notes

This article first appeared in The Cook Political Report on November 5, 2013. To receive the Cook Report's weekly column on political advertising and targeting, contact us.

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