In a week when we’ve learned that the Australian government is spending taxpayers’ money on pseudo-science, based on little more than half a dozen feelpinions and talkback radio, it’s worth remembering that some of the planet’s best and brightest are focused not on a mission to Mars or a cure for cancer, but on targeting advertising at you. If you thought those ads that follow you around the web were creepy, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Advertising platforms — sorry, social networking and media platforms — like Facebook and Twitter aren’t just collecting the data you give them. They’re also buying it in from data brokers such as Acxiom and Datalogix, which in turn have gathered it from banks and credit card companies, loyalty schemes, competition entry forms, surveys that are “just for research purposes” — anywhere they can legally get hold of it.

And thanks to your smartphone, they know where you are. Even if you don’t use the GPS , your wi-fi and Bluetooth transmitters have unique IDs, which can be cross-matched back to your phone number and email address. Why do you think shopping malls are eager for you to use the “free” Wi-Fi?

Just look at how The Next Tech Stock boosted Australian retail wi-fi provider SkyFii Ltd. Indeed, a range of companies offer to roll out city-wide “free” networks, just so they can track the punters.

Advertisers (“brands”, as marketers call them) are only beginning to explore the possibilities. But if you want to explore them for yourself, do what Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at Helsinki-based F-Secure suggests: sign up not as a user, but as an advertiser.

“Go to Google and buy an ad. Go to Facebook and buy an ad. Go to Twitter and purchase a ‘promoted tweet’, because it will open your eyes,” Hypponen told the AusCERT Information Security Conference on the Gold Coast earlier this month.

Twitter, for example, lets you target your promoted tweets at beer drinkers. Or people with hybrid or electric cars. Or who are into paranormal phenomena.

If your customers are in the US, more detailed targeting is already possible. You can target Twitter users with a household income between $50,000 and $74,999. Or the 1.55 million described as “corporate moms”. Or the 2.05 million who specifically buy Kellogg’s Froot Loops.

Imagine that you’re a “fit mom” (yes, that’s another category) with children aged under 10, and you’ve been buying them Froot Loops. You might well see a low-sugar breakfast product being promoted to you, including a map to the closest supermarket that’s got it on special.

Actually, since the shopping mall is tracking your location down to the last metre, you could well receive an SMS just as you pause in the breakfast food aisle, telling you to look to your left, on the second shelf — because just for you, that low-sugar brand is a dollar off marked price for the next five minutes.

Did you spend several minutes in the confectionary aisle without buying anything? As you turn to walk away, your phone offers discount chocolate. Did you just drop bread into the trolley? Vegemite is just behind you. A new T-shirt? Matching slacks are to the right.

And thanks to “big data” analysis, advertisers will be able word their offers, and time their delivery, with the precision of a cigarette’s first nicotine hit. Maximise those returns, baby!

This relentless tracking is happening, Hypponen says, because today, more than 20 years after the creation of the web, there’s still no simple, integrated way for us to pay for content.

“To pay half a cent to read today’s Dilbert, I can’t do that. The only thing that is even getting close to that are these virtual currencies like Bitcoin, but that’s not built into our browser.”

Instead, we ended up with “a system that we would never have imagined in 1994”, but which has been “perfected” by the biggest players on the net today, namely Google, Facebook and Twitter: “Profiling the user to gather as much information about individuals as possible, and then selling those profiles to the customers of these services, to the advertisers.”

You’ll note that Apple is absent from Hypponen’s list. That’s because Apple has said, repeatedly, that it isn’t interested in analysing your data. But that doesn’t mean the third-party apps running on Apple devices can’t do so. As Gizmodo‘s Luke Hopewell put it, “Apple is selling your privacy back to you as a feature'”.

At Apple’s recent World-Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), a little-reported announcement was that the next version of Apple’s Safari web browser will let users block ads on iPhones and iPads. Except, perhaps, Apple’s own iAd product. So presumably that’ll be their way of muscling in on the lucrative advertising revenue stream.

Finally, if retail doesn’t scare you, remember that political parties have voter databases, and they too can be cross-matched in the same was. As I speculated back in 2013, prepare for the attack of the politiclones.

*Disclosure: Stilgherrian travelled to the Gold Coast as AusCERT’s guest.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW