When Personalized Becomes Predatory

What do you think of when you hear the words "Internet surveillance"?

What do you think of when you hear the words "Internet surveillance"?

If you've been following the news, you might be thinking about the National Security Agency's PRISM spying program. Or maybe you're recalling debates about the age-old battle between security and liberty, and deciding where to draw the line.

That's not the whole story, though. Corporations don't just hand over your personal information to the government -- they also sell it to advertisers, and make a hefty profit in return.

Middlemen like the Acxiom Corporation purchase data from a variety of Internet companies and use it to craft extremely detailed consumer profiles on all of us. So even if you're careful never to share too much information with any one website or browser, all your data still could be aggregated by a third-party data broker. Advertisers buy thousands of these profiles so they can use the intimate details of our lives to target us with personalized ads.

And about those "personalized ads" -- this isn't about Facebook learning you prefer Coke over Pepsi. This is about corporations targeting us where we're vulnerable. This is about your Latina neighbor who sees ads for risky high-interest credit cards. This is about your cousin who just got laid off and now sees ad after ad selling him dangerous fast-cash offers and subprime mortgages. This is about your friend who lives in a rougher part of town and sees higher prices whenever he shops online. This is about all of us.

These ads aren't personalized -- they're predatory.

Sometimes corporations steer their ads away from poorer communities entirely. They use the profiles to assign users "e-scores," secret numbers that rank people according to how valuable companies believe they are as consumers. Affluent Internet users with higher e-scores receive coupons and ads for low-interest credit, while those with lower e-scores are overlooked, and even targeted with high-interest payday loans.

Online shopping sites use data on income and location to manipulate their prices, again trying to attract wealthier consumers with discounts and leaving the less fortunate out in the cold. A Wall Street Journal investigation uncovered direct evidence of this kind of price discrimination on Staples.com.

Advertisers don't make assumptions using only our individual data. They also form judgments based on damaging stereotypes. You can lose consumer "worth" not because you personally have a poor credit history, but because people like you have poor credit histories. Advertisers can target you for your race, your income, your medical history, your email contacts -- just about any information you've ever shared online, and quite a bit you probably haven't meant to share.

Some of the most damaging stereotypes target underserved communities, including people of color. "Hispanics and other minority groups are often the first victims of predatory practices against consumers and online identity fraud," said Javier Palomarez in a recent statement about a presidential appointee.

This isn't something out of a bad sci-fi novel -- this is very real, and very present.

And none of it is illegal. Our government has been slow to respond to these growing invasions of privacy, and data brokers have continued to operate without any regulation. The Internet should be a place for people to communicate freely without fears for their privacy. We need determined action to shed light on questionable data practices and curb these privacy violations.