Billboards wrongly track consumers


There exists above us all a cloud, hazy and ephemeral, that follows our every move. Though far from sight, the cloud records our interests, activities and habits.

Unknown to us, we consented to its stalking when the first Ethernet cable was plugged in. Consumer data tracking was an inevitable evolutionary trait of internet usage, an all-too-convenient service for the marketing industry. We know of mass government spying and many of us condemn the practice. But few understand the extent to which we, as consumers, are preyed upon by prying eyes.

Take, for example, New York State Senator Chuck Schumer’s outrage with billboards that track consumer data via their smartphones. These billboards collect data on which stores costumers enter, how much time they spend in a store and other related data. This type of data can be cross-referenced with specific sales data to gauge the effect of an ad campaign on consumer behavior to optimize marketing.

But our private data, on personal cellphones, should not be available for sale without our consent. Purchasing and using a phone is not a signature on a contract permitting the essential stalking of our movements.

Nevertheless, that has not stopped large technology companies from collecting, collating and selling this data for use by firms in every imaginable industry. Facebook, for example, tailors advertisements based on browsing patterns and histories. Our cellphones record our geo-location whether or not we enable the feature. That we can be tracked through our cell phones in the first place is eerie enough.

Sure, it is relatively harmless, albeit spooky, that companies have the capacity to capture so much information about us.

Some might argue that if it is used to sell us a product, a voluntary action on our part, there is no wrong committed. Such an argument fails to capture two facets: the right to privacy and the potential for abuse.

What is the precedent set for privacy in the 21st century if the technology a consumer purchases enables companies to spy on them? Is it the responsibility of the consumer to secure their privacy, perhaps by not purchasing these goods at all?

As for the potential for abuse, if we, as a society, deem these practices as ethically and legally sound, how much farther can businesses engaged in data collection go to optimize their systems?

There is little logical difference between allowing a business to mine your movements in a given area, and allowing it to use personal data to tailor sales and allowing a business to know your demographic data for the same purpose.

Convenience aside, sensitive personal information ought to be protected at all costs from use and manipulation by business interests. It follows that, using such vast amounts of data, a business might be able to glean your approximate age, gender, race and perhaps even conditions or limitations specific to you and your lifestyle, based on simple data available to them.

Using your browsing data and cookies, it would not be difficult to develop a “profile” that speaks of your interests. Cross-referencing these interests would enable a business to stereotype you, and cater advertisements and products to what they assume would follow your interests.

While Orwellian scenarios also come to mind, it is more likely that the large-scale mining and analysis of data will expand to a point ubiquity: it will be impossible for a firm or business to operate without it. Society will soon be itemized and categorized based on marketability and interests.

It may be difficult to articulate the existential fear that follows such a thought, but it boils down to this: privacy is integral to the maintenance and efficiency of a Democratic society. These business practices erode the very fiber of this ideology.