I met a hi-tech entrepreneur who told me that the Web is nothing more than a marketing platform. We consume content while being provided with adverts. That, he summarised, is the business model of the internet. As we know, advertisers want to target their ads as precisely as possible. On television they do this by researching or guessing who is watching what. On the internet, advertisers are able to know exactly who is seeing which ads, and this makes internet advertising a very attractive proposition.
But how does it work? Look at this diagram:
The first thing to note is that there are three main actors: websites, who publish adverts; advertising networks, who buy advertising space on websites; and companies, who pay advertising networks to advertise their wares. This is very much the old media model. Where it becomes “new media”, though, is in the way that the advertising networks are able to track our online behavior. When I visit Website 1, I get a cookie from whichever advertising networks advertise on that site. This also happens when I visit Websites 2, 3 and 4. The clever part is that if any of Websites 2, 3 and 4 are also part of an advertising network’s network, then that network knows that I’ve been to those sites too. The bigger the advertising network, the more it knows about my surfing behavior (and hence about my consumption behavior).
It is important to realise that, unlike with television audiences, online advertisers do not have to deal with aggregates of audiences, but that they can individually tailor the adverts that we read. When placing adverts on television, an advertiser can quite confidently predict that the audience of a football match will be mostly male. But when you visit a site in the network of an online advertiser, they don’t have to guess what your interests are; if their network is large enough, they know exactly what you are interested in, which sites you have visited, what you did there, how long you were there, and so on and so on.
It turns out that there is a low-tech solution that can help you prevent seeing photos of yourself appear in other people’s Flickr streams. I’m not sure if you can actually see through them though.
An Israeli researcher, Yair Neuman, has developed an algorithm that analyses blogs and identifies depressed bloggers based on their writing. When clinical psychologists were asked to evaluate the same blogs, their views and the software’s output matched in 80% of the cases. Neuman sees this development has having practical applications: for instance, by enabling mental health workers to identify individuals who might need psychotherapeutic help.
Neuman himself seems well aware of the privacy issues here. He had permission from all of the bloggers whose writings were included in the study to use their blog entries; also, in his description of a usage scenario of his software he says, “Through this software it will be possible to contact a blogger and request a general examination of the contents of his blog. If the blogger agrees, he will know whether he needs to seek professional counseling for any possible distress”.
There are a number of interesting issues here. First off, one might say that this has no place in a blog about privacy as people’s blogs are inherently public. If someone is blogging, they want the world to know what they have to say. However, they may not have intended their writing to be analysed for the sake of making some kind of psychological report.
Second, one might say that a blogger who wants privacy can blog under a pseudonym. Third, one might say that an algorithm that can tell me that someone who wrote “oh my god my life is not worth living i’m so depressed” is depressed is not that clever. We don’t know which texts were analysed, so we’ll have to withhold judgment on that.
If there is a privacy issue here – and I’m pretty sure that there is – it is related to the technologies I wrote about in a previous post, namely, technologies that claim to infer our psychological state of mind from remotely taken physiological readings. If this technology could create some kind of psychological profile of a blogger, even, or rather especially, when he is not writing about how he feels (but rather about sport, say, or technology and privacy), then it would be a very powerful tool. I am not saying that this is what Neuman’s algorithm can do right now; instead I’m using it to think about possible developments, one of which might be the creation of a psychological profile of a blogger that stretches over years (the internet never forgets, remember).
I’m just reading an interesting article about how the mass media (i.e. adults) talk about how children and youth use technology. You know the story: kids today share every intimate detail with each other about their lives; they have no sense of privacy; when they grow up, there really will be no privacy left in the world…
But Susan Herring makes the excellent point – one of those points which is obvious once you come across it, but which you hadn’t necessarily thought of beforehand – that today’s youth and children are the most monitored and watched over generation ever to have lived. Their schools have CCTV cameras and they pay for their lunch at the canteen electronically (meaning their parents can see what they had for lunch every day this week); their parents install internet monitoring software on their computers; their parents use their kids’ mobile phones and their cars’ GPS systems to track them…
All of which raises the slightly subversive question: when adults say with despair that “the kids” don’t care about their privacy, are the adults not being perhaps a little bit hypocritical?
In the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to meet and chat with some very clever entrepreneurs who are doing all sorts of very clever things with computers and sensors and things. Much of their work is aimed at making us safer (by stopping terrorists at airports, for instance), but you can’t help but acknowledge the creepiness factor of it either.
So what have I learnt? Firstly, that here is a lot of work underway that endeavours to link psychological states to physiology. This isn’t all that new – ask anyone who has every played poker. Secondly, that there is a lot of work underway that endeavours to take physiological measurements in entirely non-intrusive ways. Apparently, you can measure changes in a person’s blood pressure without touching them. You can create heat images of a person’s face without them knowing. You can analyse their voice. Changes in these measurements might indicate psychological states, such as unease and nervousness, but also happiness, love, and so on and so on.
There have always been people who are especially good at reading other people, but this combination of robust linkages between psychology and physiology and the ability to take physiological measurements without the subject’s knowledge opens up all sorts of possibilities.
Without wanting to oversimplify things, this might mean that terrorists will no longer be able to board aeroplanes. I’m sure you can think of a plethora of other applications as well, though, which don’t look so attractive.