Floodwatch Browser Extension Lets Internet Users Track the Ads that Track Them

On the internet, advertising seems to follow users everywhere. Now one agency aims to find out what happens when users follow those ads right back.

In mid-October, the Office for Creative Research rolled out their browser extension called Floodwatch. Floodwatch collects details about the ads that appear in users’ browsers, such as who publishes them and what they advertise.

The Office for Creative Research was founded by three former staffers for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize-winning data scientist named Ashkan Soltani. The agency aims to use the research to help users see what kinds of ads their online identities attract.

The extension arrives as Google and Facebook compete with each other for the top spot in internet marketing. Facebook, which has a share of roughly 8% of the online ad market, is notorious for tracking data on its users and participating in what some call invasive behavioral marketing.

“From an advertising standpoint, this type of campaign has proven to be very beneficial and effecting, providing more data to marketers than most any other type of campaign,” comments Scott Trueblood, President of BrandVision Marketing, a full-service marketing and advertising agency. “From a consumer’s standpoint, however, it all seems a bit too ‘big brother’; and that’s understandable.”

The goal for the makers of Floodwatch is to study exactly what personal details advertisers use in order to target consumers. It may also be a chance to discover what discriminatory practices may exist in advertising, as well.

Office for Creative Research cofounder Jer Thorpe explains that the advertising process isn’t always clear, but “There’s a deep suspicion from a number of people that there’s some pretty problematic discrimination practices happening in the ad industry, especially online.”

Thorpe says that the extension now gives users the chance to “reverse engineer the algorithms” that advertisers use, in order to understand where these ads come from.

Thorpe cites research by Latanya Sweeney, chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, as an example of such practices. In 2012, Sweeney studied the ads that Google searches showed on “black-sounding names” and found that AdSense showed ads for bail bonds and criminal background checks, whereas non-ethnic-sounding names did not.

Thorpe says that the ads become a problem when discrimination occurs due to race, gender or other criteria, giving the example of website ads that cater to or assume a person’s sexual orientation.

The Office for Creative Research wants to reach their initial goal of 10,000 Floodwatch users in order to start processing the data, and so far they’ve collected 60% of those users. In the long-term, Thorpe would like to see 100,000 users in order to better identify discriminatory practices.

Whether or not users are interested in activism, Thorpe recommends installing the extension and forgetting about it for a couple of weeks. When users come back to it later, Thorpe says it can serve as a “surprising exercise.”

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