In his landmark novel 1984, George Orwell famously declared, “Big Brother is watching you.”  These days, it’s easy to become a little paranoid with all of the talk of hacking and spying in the news.  For years, we’ve accepted the fact that if we browse on Amazon for a certain product, we will be inundated with ads for that product or something very similar.  But now, the paranoia is growing because people are receiving targeted ads for things they have never viewed before—things they have only talked about or mentioned in passing to someone else.  Welcome to the age of what is becoming known as uncanny targeted advertising.

Facebook Put On Trial

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress to testify about his company’s use of data and how it may have been misused, particularly in relation to attempts to influence the 2016 election.  During this testimony, Zuckerberg had to refute questions from Senators who asked about long-held rumors—namely that Facebook uses customer’s cellphones to eavesdrop on them.  While he denied this and the logistics of such a set-up seems incredibly unlikely (not to mention incredibly illegal), there is still a lot that is not known about how Facebook and other companies use data to create targeted advertising profiles.

How Are You Being Targeted

One option that users have when they receive a targeted ad is to click on the “Why was I shown this” option.  However, you will only get very vague information such as “Over 45 and living in New York” or “Plays video games.”  You can also go through the sections of your Ad Preferences controls to get a slightly better, but still not completely accurate, view of how you are being targeted.

Another way that this is done is with what is called “Lookalike Audiences.”  It can take a specific demographic, such as “Stay at Home Moms over 35” and then extrapolate what you might be interested in based on the likes and interests of others in that same category.  Once Facebook finds a “lookalike” profile for your specific demographics and interests (based on your shared browsing data and your “likes” on Facebook), they can use extremely advanced algorithms to determine what to target you with.  The downside to this is that Facebook isn’t about to make these algorithms public knowledge, so it’s all a big mystery exactly how this is done.

Third Party Businesses

One area that has been of special concern is the use of third party businesses that act as data clearinghouses.  These gather data on you, often without your knowledge or permission, and then sell this data to companies like Facebook for the purposes of advertising.  Facebook has moved to scale this back in the name of privacy, but it still goes on with other companies.

Artificial intelligence has been used for years now by companies such as Netflix or Spotify to determine what types of movies and music you like and thereby make recommendations for its users.  But this has been done with our full knowledge and acceptance so that we can get a better, more personalized experience from those companies.  What is more troubling is the use of data without our knowledge or permission to target us with ads.  When you factor in the concerns over data usage from the past election, where data such as race and political affiliation was used to target users with news articles, and you are definitely entering an area where most consumers are concerned. It seems that the best analogy for this current era may be, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”