A Reality Check on Righteous Privacy Indignation
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, some of my iPhone apps are spying on me. They apparently know when I use them, my location, my age and my gender. Then they send it all to marketing companies. This wouldn't happen if we'd all pay full price for everything we use and download. But given the chance, despite the anger over this violation of privacy, how many would really do that?
12/23/10 5:00 AM PT
When I first heard about The Wall Street Journal's expose article last weekend, titled "Your Apps Are Watching You," I was outraged: My iPhone apps where sending my iPhone 4's Unique Device Identifier (UDID) to marketing companies? They were tracking my location and sharing it with advertising networks? They were sharing my age and gender and ZIP code? And when I spent a certain amount of time navigating some apps, they were tattling on me -- communicating how much time I spent with them, how deep into the app I delved? And after they sent this off willy nilly to various marketing companies, the marketing companies built profiles and judged me, then slapped me into a category to sell to advertisers?!
With all that info at their disposal, I'm pretty sure that marketers know when I'm using the toilet.
They definitely know that sometimes, late at night, when I should be sleeping, I play games and watch movies and read books. Lately, I've been watching "Terriers." Great show, by the way.
You See What Just Happened Here?
In that sentence above, I just disclosed a bit of personal information. No, not the paranoia about the toilet. That I like the TV show "Terriers." This article will be posted online for pretty much forever, and now there's a tiny piece of personal information tied to me. The key is, I chose to release that information. I chose to share.
My iPhone 4 chooses to share for me, and that pisses me off.
The thing is, I'm not a particularly trusting guy. I know there are plenty of marketing companies that use all sorts of methods to figure me out -- where I live, if I'm a parent, what kind of vehicle I drive, what kind of insurance I buy, my go-to brand of beer, the books I read, and the pots and pans on Amazon.com I'm busy evaluating. They are compiling this information, cross-referencing it, looking for unique identifiers, and creating profiles.
If they do it right, the data doesn't actually point to identifiable individuals. But again, I don't believe that companies and people do a trustworthy job of protecting their data -- even from themselves.
One guy who posted a comment on one of the many blog posts I read on the subject of this topic basically made a pretty good point:
"So they know that I'm a gadget nerd who is broke. Who cares?"
So what's going on here, other than the fact that more people will be watching our locations via our mobile phones than there are dudes in the UK tasked with monitoring the tens of thousands of street-corner and building video cameras that are designed to protect the populace?
Problem #1: Too Many People Want Free Stuff
There are some consumers who simply can't afford expensive gadgets, and the ability to get mobile phones free or at subsidized costs is a good thing. But there are plenty of consumers -- millions upon millions, I'd say -- who would rather download a free version of an app with ads than simply pay for an application. This tendency to want amazing functionality -- but not pay for it -- drives the advertising industry. Heck, we've been operating this way with broadcast television for years.
But as technology evolves, it becomes a sick cycle wherein privacy is lost. If we'd all just pay for stuff of value, we wouldn't be in this mess. Then again, if that actually happened, instead of many readers seeing this particular article on MacNewsWorld, there would be far fewer subscribers -- yup, the very words you're reading now are subsidized by ads flashing around them.
Problem #2: Too Many Ads Are Stupid
The other problem is relevance. How much do you hate it when you're exposed to really dumb ads? I don't know how many times I watched TV episodes on Hulu.com and basically saw the equivalent of Hamburger Helper ads. What went wrong here? I don't buy Hamburger Helper. I have little interest in main course meals that come in boxes full of noodles and powders. And yet, I had to sit through them in order to watch the content. Why didn't they just show me some motorcycle ads instead?
As it turns out, ad networks are delving deep into our browsing history and checking out our interests, then trying to serve up more relevant ads. Here's how it works: I visit CycleWorld.com, read a few articles, and then boom, on future sites I navigate to, I get to see motorcycle ads from Yamaha. Not bad. Except, I own a Honda, so I'm more interested in the Honda ads -- and those come, too.
But then I navigate to some nerdy gadget sites, and I'm totally interested in the latest consumer electronics-related news, and suddenly I'm seeing the motorcycle ads being served up on the gadget site. Right ads, just the wrong time -- and the wrong context.
If they were smarter, they'd realize I don't care about bikes when I'm looking at iPhone accessory reviews.
Problem #3: To Get Relevance, Marketers Have to Know Me
In order for me to have a better advertising experience -- unless I'm a broke gadget nerd -- I need to see relevant ads. Things I care about. But how can a company possibly find that out? Can Pandora, which The Wall Street Journal noted, actually deliver the right ads to me simply from figuring out which songs I like and dislike? So far, Pandora's not that good at it. I've clicked on only a couple of ads so far, but I'm not sure how many ads I click on vs. how many hours of music I listen to. Pandora might know, though.
And that makes me irritable until I realize, wait a minute, in order to listen to free music on the radio, I have to sit through stupid lawyer commercials and hear about furniture stores that are going out of business this weekend. There's a reason I buy music on iTunes. But sometimes, I want to listen beyond what I'm willing to buy ... and that's where Pandora comes in. It turns out, Pandora is pretty valuable to me, so I'm willing to share my information.
That's until I realize that maybe some of these app companies are sharing my unique UDID, and they are sharing it with the marketing companies, who are in turn collecting my UDID from a bunch of different apps, which then start painting a much more detailed picture of me for their databases.
Pretty soon there will be an app that will use this information to full advantage: What Do I Want for Christmas?
Simply tap the chimney and boom, the app will deliver a single relevant ad that will surprise you. It'll be for something you didn't know you needed, but once you see it, you'll realize that it's perfect. And then, without being able to control yourself, you'll buy it on the spot, even if you're in the bathroom.
Who doesn't want this?
Heck, here's the cold hard truth: In principle, I want total privacy. In practice, I'm not sure I'm willing to pay for it. If there was an iPhone P -- for privacy -- that only let me download private apps that I paid for, I'm not sure that I would buy it. Maybe. But then I never would have spent so much time launching Angry Birds into the air.
I wonder if there are enough consumers in the world willing to simply pay for valuable content directly ... instead of indirectly via ads. I hope I would be one of them, with my righteous privacy indignation, but I'm not so sure.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.