September 4, 2012    /    by

Should governments target users with online ads?

I noticed ads showing up all over the place asking me to come back to their websites. Whether I was checking baseball scores at ESPN, doing a Google maps search for driving directions or researching a cybersecurity article at various tech websites, the computer browser was beckoning me to return and buy plane tickets, with targeted ads asking me questions. Will governments be next to use targeted ads online?

    I was surfing the web a few weeks back looking for the best airfare deals from Michigan to various California airports. I checked a variety of travel websites as well as various airport combinations and different days of the week to find the right combination. After more than a week of comparing airfares, airlines and a host of other factors, I finally made my decision and purchased tickets.

 But along the way, I noticed ads showing up all over the place asking me to come back to their websites. Whether I was checking baseball scores at ESPN, doing a Google maps search for driving directions or researching a cybersecurity article at various tech websites, the computer browser was beckoning me to return and buy plane tickets, with targeted ads asking me questions. The advertisements had different colors, shapes and sizes, but they were all trying to get my attention with pointed questions like:

Do you still want to go to San Diego?

 'Looking for airfares to Orange County?'

 'Special deal, today only, on ‘xyz’ airline!'

  'Airfares cut to California.'

It was a bit weird. Were they trying to read my mind or just watching my actions (via cookies)?

Perhaps you are thinking – so what? Amazon has been doing this for years.

But the tracking and targeting of online users is growing. I’ve been watching this trend closely for the past four-plus years since I wrote the book Virtual Integrity, in which I describe various upcoming scenarios in cyberspace chapters nine and ten. I find myself agreeing with the privacy communities that this trend of “tempting the click” is evolving in ways which raises many concerns.  

New Twitter Targeted Ads

The Wall Street Journal recently announced that Twitter will now allow targeted ads based upon interest. Here’s an excerpt of that article:

“Twitter said it will let advertisers push their marketing messages to users based on indications of what they like. A company that sells a sports drink, for example, could elect to show paid ads to Twitter users who are fans of professional football.

Twitter said it will identify a football fan, say, by analyzing whether the Twitter user ‘follows’ many Twitter accounts from football players or commentators, or because the user recirculates Twitter messages from those accounts. Twitter said it doesn't target ads based on the text of a user's Twitter posts, known as tweets.”

While it is true that there are plenty of ways to turn off cookies and use anonymity to disable tracking, many website functions will not work without cookies and/or javascript enabled.

For example, in my search of plane tickets, and in other searches I’ve performed for various purchases online, the websites require that cookies be enabled to work through the entire process.

While this type of targeting of ads does not bother me enough to stop using various online services, I know it bothers quite a few friends and relatives of mine even more. They see this as “big brother,” especially if they are not specifically asked whether they are ok with this practice. And yes, I’d rather be asked than just tracked. Where is this going next?

One friend said he doesn’t mind if Amazon suggests books he may like when he connects to their portal, since it stays within that website and he trusts them with certain information anyway - like his “wish list.”  However, he does not like this targeting of ads if it spread all over the Internet to companies and websites that he has no relationship with.

Are Government Sponsored Targeted Ads Next?

This brings me to the main point of this blog. Where is this headed within government technology circles? Will federal, state and local governments start to target ads to users in the same way that private companies do now? Will they use this new Twitter feature to get you to renew your driver’s license? How about an ad to come back and enjoy the same national park that you visited last year – as you check football scores?

Advocates of this approach will no doubt say that people get emails today that do this very same thing, if they “opt-in” to government listserves on various topics. This may be true, but will the targeting be “opt-in” or “opt-out?” Will the new functionality and the ever-growing list of Google AdWords services become too much for governments to resist?

There are certainly some wonderful opportunities to help consumers with this new capability, but others will see this as government “Big Brother.”

Will Big Data Lead to More Ads?

 Back in March, 2012, an important Government Computer News article was entitled: Big data’s target: Users. Here’s an excerpt:

“Government is amassing data at an accelerating rate, and it even has tools available to process and analyze it. But to get real value from all that information, the government must put it into the hands of users, the General Services Administration’s Dave McClure told a Washington audience.”

The question becomes, how will this government data be used, assuming good intentions?

Will we be surfing government portals five years from now and be sent targeted ads about driving schools if someone has a bad driving record? Will late taxes prompt an ad from H&R Block? Or…. What?

I don’t know the answers, but I’d love to hear your perspectives? There is no doubt that the technology is now available to target users. The private sector is “all-in” when it comes to using this technology.

Will governments be next? I just don’t know how this will be done without many complaints. In fact, I think it should be an opt-in approach and not the default. There could also be incentives for opting-in (like cheaper campground reservations.)

What are your thoughts?