Targeted Ads vs. User Privacy — Why One New Marketing Analysis Software Crosses the Line

Online marketing is certainly one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways for small businesses to reach target audiences, but recent security breaches and reports of Big Brother-style surveillance on social media platforms has many people wondering, where does targeted advertising cross the line and become violations of privacy?

Every millennial is probably very familiar with the warning “Be careful what you post online — it stays there forever!” And any regular search engine user has probably noticed that sidebar advertisements creepily mirror whatever the user has been recently been searching (possibly prompting the user to quickly delete all search history and cookie caches).

To add to the anxiety, only weeks after dozens of celebrities had private photos stolen and released in online chatrooms (in what was possibly Apple’s biggest iCloud security breach to date), Snapchat users were warned that thousands of their own private photos could be leaked on the same websites.

Now more than ever before, the average social media user is becoming hyper-aware of the lack of privacy on social media platforms.

So when news broke that marketing firms have been taking advantage of the “selfie” epidemic running rampant on digital sharing platforms, people did not take the news lightly. Every major media publication, from the Wall Street Journal to The Daily Mail, has begun warning readers that an image-recognition program created by Massachusetts-based Ditto Labs allows companies to analyze photos on social media websites.

This program not only allows companies to sift through thousands of photos and pick out which users are likely to be potential customers — it also recognizes emotions through facial-recognition software, and it analyzes every detail of the photo’s backdrop to determine the location and possible interests of the subjects.

If you think this program sounds too creepy for comfort, you aren’t alone. Privacy advocacy groups like Common Sense Media and Big Brother Watch have already made statements condemning the program, and one WSJ article discusses the control (or lack thereof) that the Federal Trade Commission is able to exert over privacy policies.

On a larger scale, this program has caused marketing companies and social media users alike to think about when targeted advertising turns into an invasion of privacy.

“This is becoming a “telemarketing” way of reaching you through your personal online accounts. I believe that a company’s marketing efforts should only be targeted to customers that have opted to receive information from them,” says Matt Harding, President/Creative Director, Durrani Design.

Although calling for federal regulations regarding social media and marketing companies may be a bit dramatic and unfeasible this early in the game, one thing is clear: consumers are becoming more concerned with privacy policies online, and marketing companies will have to start appealing to these concerns — or else risk a large-scale backlash, like Ditto Labs now faces.

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