When you send a letter electronically to your partner in love and life, he or she is not the only one to read it.
People involved in marketing also know what you write. Their computers intercept your emails and status updates to find and log private information in them.
They know the type of news that interests you, the music you like to listen or dance to, the films you like the most. And they probably know your religious and political leanings too.
The businesses that these marketing people work for use such private information to produce banner adverts and to market products that precisely match your profile and wants.
“You can say that the computer reads your mind – it guesses who you are and what you want and then sends targeted advertising to you,” says Professor Lars Kai Hansen, who is head of the section for cognitive systems at DTU Informatics, at the Technical University of Denmark.
“As soon as you open a website the host computer starts to analyse the information it has about you,” he says. “In the course of a few seconds, commercial companies start sending you targeted banner and other advertising.”
Every website that is financed by advertising uses search algorithms to make statistics and analyses of the people visiting the site.
The algorithms register who reads what and how often. They gather information about the age, gender, interests, friends and job of the Internet user.
The algorithms can even register users’ attitudes.
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which have masses of private information, are a particularly rich eldorado for search algorithms.
But the software systems also read private emails and remember the information you register about yourself when you create a user account with e.g. YouTube or Amazon.
Although search algorithms have speeded up businesses’ electronic marketing since the first banner advertisements popped up on the screen some 20 years ago, this marketing activity is still under-developed, says Hansen.
“The advertising banners on the Internet are from the Stone Age and they don’t work,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time I clicked on a banner even though it should have been targeted to me. At the moment, electronic marketing is not effective – in reality it’s a waste of time.”
Both consumers and retailers would benefit from adverts that are targeted even more specifically to the individual web user, he adds.
Google is one of the Internet services that to a large extent shares your personal information with other websites – for instance from Gmail to YouTube.
However, with Google you have the possibility of managing the personal information stored by the website. You can do this using Google Dashboard.
Hansen says the problem is that most Internet users do not know the extent to which their private information is used for marketing.
Even if you accept the right of businesses to use the information you register when you create your account with a website, it is difficult for ordinary people to find out how this information is used.
The situation is rather reminiscent of insider trading – and it’s not only an ethical problem, but also ineffective, he adds.
If website users themselves could choose which information they want to share, then businesses’ advertising could become far more effective, says Hansen.
“When you go into a salesroom to buy a car you tell the dealer what you want and how you will be using the car – you decide what information you give,” he says. “In other words, you tell the dealer what he or she needs to know to find the car that suits your needs. I’d like to see something similar on the Internet.”
If businesses started to listen more to their customers, they could make advertising banners that are even better targeted and that people would then click on, he believes.
“My vision is that electronic marketing will operate in an open dialogue with website users,” says Hansen. “I want to have influence on the products I’m offered. If for instance I could tell the computer that I shop locally on a certain day of the week, and I list the products I will be buying, I could get offers from various shops selling those products. That would be a win-win situation for both retailers and consumers.”
Internet users would also benefit if advertisers used the social media more actively, he believes.
He suggests that cinemas, for instance, could offer tickets at a group rate to people who are members of a Facebook group set up to buy tickets to the same film.
Some websites, such as www.groupon.com, have already started offering this form of social marketing.
Hansen would nevertheless like to have more control over how his private information is stored and used commercially: “I don’t have a problem with advertising, but I do not feel it’s a good idea that they read my emails as a basis for marketing,” he says. “I want to decide for myself what they are told.”
Read this story in Danish at videnskab.dk
How your private information is being used