How Surveillance Advertising Seized Our Data and Hijacked the Web

Digital advertisers have steadily transformed the internet into a surveillance machine from which there is no escape.

An individual sits before a computer at home, but his head's profile ominously makes the monitor resemble an eye.
Michael Driver

As internet and mobile platforms have grown to become the world’s most important advertising media, the public has come to realize that untold companies are routinely harvesting our data and using it in ways we can’t fully comprehend. From giant advertising platforms like Google and Facebook to thousands of smaller players in the ad tech space, a sprawling surveillance advertising apparatus extends to all corners of the web.

This $300 billion global industry collects and trades huge quantities of personal information to ostensibly help marketers reach “the right person with the right message at the right time.” A study of one million popular websites found that nearly 90 percent of them exchange data with third parties behind the scenes. Various methods of linking online and offline personal information have severely undermined the notion of privacy.

Surveillance advertisers argue that this apparatus exists because you, the consumer, are simply too powerful. They say that the internet’s universe of on demand digital content has created a crisis of attention scarcity. Making ads more relevant through relentless tracking and targeting is the only way to cut through the clutter. This myth allows the digital ad industry to rationalize invasive data collection, patronize internet users, and deflect the threat of public interest regulation. In a cruel irony, the “empowered consumer” is repeatedly invoked to justify surveillance practices that erode individual autonomy and choice.

The idea of the sovereign digital consumer parallels the libertarian technological determinism that characterized the early days of cyberspace. Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow argued that the internet was a “naturally independent” realm, where individuals pursuing “enlightened self-interest” were free to do as they pleased. Governments, corporations, and other “weary giants of flesh and steel” simply had no control over “the new home of Mind.”

But for advertisers, increased autonomy in media engagement has long been something to fear rather than celebrate, a reflection of the industry’s perennial worry of being outmoded by technological change and losing the ability to capture consumer attention. The arrival of cable television and home video recording in the 1980s prompted experimentation with computerized marketing databases and techniques like product placement. Following the internet’s commercialization in the 1990s and the further fragmentation of the media market, the ad industry became obsessed with the prospect that “interactive media” was going to put the consumer in charge once and for all. Marketers rallied around the notion that advertising needed to be more personalized, more targeted, and more relevant to consumer desires — a strategy that relied on unfettered access to consumer data.

Over the next two decades, as digital advertising evolved with an almost singular focus on surveillance, the idea of the empowered consumer became a staple of industry discourse.

In the crosshairs

Internet advertising didn’t gain much traction until 1996, when a group of startups called ad networks began to aggregate ad inventory across web publishers. Recognizing that hardly anyone actually clicked on banner ads, ad networks like DoubleClick developed a sales pitch around the empowered web consumer. They argued that targeted banner ads, fueled by third-party tracking cookies, were the only way to get internet users to pay attention to commercial appeals.

What do your customers do outside your sites and apps? What content do they consume? What interests do they have? What do they eat, where do they shop, how do they work their worlds, etc.?

Third-party tracking, which injects an outside entity into the two-party dynamic of a consumer connecting to a website, enabled digital advertisers to follow users from site to site. It anticipated today’s behavioral advertising, where a range of data are compiled into consumer profiles that not only infer consumer traits and demographic details, but attempt to predict and modify future actions and beliefs. DoubleClick explained in its promotional literature that such measures were needed because consumers were “wrestling the instruments of control from the corporations that have been accustomed to prescribing the media diet…. The winners in both media and advertising will be those that adapt most effectively to the new consumer-centric model.”

The tactic worked. DoubleClick rapidly became the dot-com era’s leading provider of targeted advertising, compiling a database of hundreds of millions of consumer profiles. An industry of surveillance advertisers followed suit, led most forcefully by Google and Facebook, whose leaders pushed the boundaries of data collection and sought to redefine privacy norms. The technologies of surveillance advertising continue to grow more sophisticated, but the sales pitch has remained remarkably consistent. Google, which purchased DoubleClick in 2007, still raises the specter of the “super-empowered consumer” to drum up business from marketers and web publishers alike.

In recent years, surveillance advertisers and data brokers have gained even more ground in tracking consumers across devices and stitching together online and offline information. Increasingly expansive and interconnected surveillance technologies are claimed to be necessary in order to keep up with digital consumers who move effortlessly from screen to screen and pay little mind to marketing communications. Because consumers have so many options, every facet of digital media must become a touchpoint for data collection and ad targeting.

“What if you could see what you’ve been missing about your customers?” asks the data broker Lotame. “Even with the vastest collection of first-party data, you only get a narrow view of your customers’ behaviors and interests. What do your customers do outside your sites and apps? What content do they consume? What interests do they have? What do they eat, where do they shop, how do they work their worlds, etc.?”

Without this “panoramic view,” the pitch suggests, marketers risk losing out to competitors who can “swoop in and take advantage.”

A regulatory smokescreen

Marketers and web publishers aren’t the only intended audience for this messaging. Surveillance advertisers have routinely deployed it to fend off threats of privacy regulation. This is a big reason why the US lacks a law that comprehensively regulates data collection and privacy protection.

When Congress deliberated on internet privacy for the first time in the late 1990s, advertising trade groups argued that regulation was unnecessary because consumers were in the driver’s seat. Rather than require advertisers to obtain consent before collecting consumer data, Congress was persuaded to let the nascent surveillance advertising industry govern itself. As long as advertisers provided a modicum of “notice and choice” regarding their data practices, people could decide for themselves whether or not to surrender their data. Safeguards weren’t needed. Individual consumers, empowered by internet technology, could barter with companies for their privacy on a case-by-case basis. Let the market sort out the details.

It’s an open secret among advertising practitioners that if consumers were truly empowered to make meaningful privacy choices, the surveillance advertising business model would implode.​

These debates set a lasting precedent for the US approach to privacy legislation, which amounts to a collective delusion that consumers actually have total control over their data and willingly consent to surveillance in order to benefit from “relevant” advertising. Surveillance advertisers have promoted this idea while developing a seemingly endless array of privacy dashboards and toolboxes. “To make privacy real,” explained Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a 2019 New York Times editorial, “we give you clear, meaningful choices around your data.”

The problem is that while many people know that surveillance occurs online, few understand the complexities and pitfalls of omnipresent behavioral tracking. In fact, given the scale at which consumer data markets operate, making informed decisions about one’s personal data is effectively impossible. This is because data are routinely combined and repackaged for all manner of downstream uses divorced from the original context of collection. How can someone evaluate the data practices of a social media company without knowing if their information might be used in the future to evaluate their creditworthiness? Privacy choices made in this context are neither clear nor meaningful.

This underscores the political consequences of the empowered consumer fallacy. While the EU and some US states are developing stronger privacy regulations, the federal government clings to a policy regime that unduly burdens internet users with the preposterous task of managing how their information moves through a vast and impenetrable market of automated data transactions. As Nuala O’Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology once put it, “These notices and choices and checkboxes have become privacy theater, but not privacy reality.”

Behind the theater curtain, it’s an open secret among advertising practitioners that if consumers were truly empowered to make meaningful privacy choices, the surveillance advertising business model would implode. Survey after survey after survey confirms that consumers by and large do not trust companies to be good stewards of their data and would rather have more, not less, privacy online.

Apple recently announced its intention to require companies to first ask permission from users before collecting their device’s unique identifier on its iPhone platform. This change was a reversal of the longstanding norm whereby companies were free to gather such data unless consumers chose to opt-out. The resulting freak-out from digital advertisers was revealing (and severe enough to make Apple postpone the plan). “Once apps have to explicitly ask a user to let them be tracked,” explained a candid Digiday editor, “those environments are no longer a sanctum for personalized ads.”

Though digital advertisers are keen to promulgate the idea of empowered consumers to help sell ads and stop regulation, it turns out that they are much less interested in actually empowering consumers. This is how they have steadily transformed the internet into a surveillance machine from which there is no escape. It’s corporate gaslighting carried out at a scale that perhaps only Silicon Valley could accomplish.

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An individual sits before a computer at home, but his head's profile ominously makes the monitor resemble an eye.

Artwork By

Michael Driver

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