How Companies Are 'Defining Your Worth' Online
FRESH AIR / US NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO
February 22, 2012
One of the fastest-growing online businesses is the business of spying on Internet users. Using sophisticated software that tracks people's online movements through the Web, companies collect the information and sell it to advertisers.
Every time you click a link, fill out a form or visit a website, advertisers are working to collect personal information about you, says Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. They then target ads to you based on that information.
On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Turow — the author of the book The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth — details how companies are tracking people through their computers and cellphones in order to personalize the ads they see.
Turow tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that tracking is ubiquitous across the Internet, from search engines to online retailers and even greeting card companies. A recent Valentine's Day card sent to his wife, for instance, contained trackers from 15 separate companies.
"[Advertisers] might make inferences about me and romance, they might make inferences — right or wrong — about my age, they might know where I did this — because of some sense of where my computer is, my IP address," he says. "There are a lot of things they can infer about me even from [a greeting card]."
But advertisers are not just limited to tracking your Internet browsing, says Turow. They're also trying to connect what you do on phones and other mobile devices, which are typically tied to an individual user and account.
"In the holy grail vision of this," says Turow, "the idea of what you do on mobile should be connected to what you do on the Internet, and what you do on the Internet should be connected to what you do on your iPad, and eventually all of this will converge on what you watch on television."
But right now, says Turow, advertisers are still in the beginning stages of tracking users. He says he still receives ads for dating sites — despite being happily married.
"We're at the beginning of this new world," he says. "It's like the beginning of the airplane industry. Things screw up, and yet we have to look down the line because we're going to have Boeing 747s down the way."