I had to laugh a few weeks ago when an ad on Facebook offered an online dating service through which I could find "older single men." Considering the ad touted singles closer to my parents' age than my own, I jokingly told friends I needed to adjust my profile so Facebook didn't assume I was quite so desperate. In response, one friend said, "That's odd, I didn't get that ad..."
The exchange drove home for me just how much consumers don't know about how behavioral analytics and targeted advertising works. Because I read and write about the tech industry every day, I knew that the ad was targeted for me based on my online activity, and in this particular instance, it was off the mark. My friend, on the other hand, had no idea that everyone who logs onto Facebook at a given time does not see the same ads on the page. I explained that the advertiser did not serve the "older single men" ad for her in part because she is married and has indicated so on the social networking site, but the idea was completely foreign to her.
That's why the Federal Trade Commission and Congress are considering -- and consumer privacy groups are pushing for -- government oversight of online privacy practices. And behavioral advertising is one of the largest areas of concern, according to analysts at Anzen Consulting who specialize in privacy issues.
Though trade groups have established self-governing regulations based on FTC guidelines, consumer advocates are urging Congress to legislate on the issue because, to this point, even the assumptions companies that collect user data are making about what their users know and don't know about how their information is used are all over the board.