As you read this, an ocean of data about the most minute details of your life floats around the internet. It changes hands millions of times a second as it’s bought, sold, exchanged, and collected in a vast effort to turn your attention into purchases and profits.
That’s probably not surprising, but it’s hard to get a handle on the specifics of how it all works. The technology is complicated, and the companies that use it don’t want you to know how invasive things can get. But a recent story from the Markup offers a firsthand look. Reporters got their hands on a database of over 650,000 categories of people that marketers use to target their ads. It may not bother you to know you’re on a list of “Back to School Shoppers” or “Toyota Owners.” In many cases, however, the facts touch on the most sensitive aspects of your life.
The list, sourced from the website for Microsoft’s ad platform Xander, includes groups like “Heavy Purchasers” of pregnancy tests, users of depression medication, “Overweight/Weight Conscious Women,” and “Tweens/Pre-teens: Age 11-13.” There are tags for race, religion, sexual orientation, financial status, medical conditions, hopes, fears, and just about anything else you can think of. Type in the word “Jewish” and you’ll have 80 different options to choose from. 137 categories use the word “addict.”
When advertisers set up their marketing campaigns, they can use these categories to find people to target, or sometimes people to avoid. There are a lot of questions about the accuracy of all this data, but information doesn’t have to be accurate for it to cause problems such as stigma or discrimination.
The digital economy faced a reckoning in the last ten years over privacy issues, but the general public and even regulators often don’t understand how online ads work. As society decides how deal the web’s personal data problems, it’s important to know exactly what we’re talking about.
Click through the slides above for some disquieting examples from the Markup’s investigation. There’s no telling who has access to this information, or exactly how it’s all being used. Here are a few that range from funny to downright disturbing.