Promoting Voyeurism in the Name of Marketing and Advertising

Linda Musthaler
By | September 05, 2014

Posted in: Network Security Trends

About the same time the story about the celebrity photo hacking incident broke, I read another disturbing article that does not bode well for personal privacy. San Francisco tech blogger Wendy Lee wrote about advertisers trolling through personal photos that people are posting to social media sites to learn more about their customers. How creepy is that?   

Apparently this is a legitimate business. Research companies use software to scan millions of photos on social media to look for various products and brands that happen to appear in the photos; for example, a guy wearing a T-shirt with a Jack Daniel's logo on the front. The concept is that the Jack Daniel Distillery might be interested in buying access to the photo to see what kinds of customers favor the brand, how consumers interact with the brand, and possibly even inspire future advertising for the brand.

That very thought is enough to make me want to ditch my clothes that have any sort of logo or commercial brand on them, and to never post another photo to any online service.

Actually, these photo-trolling companies only scour images on sites like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr because, technically, the content on those sites is for public consumption. That differs from a service like Facebook which allows people to restrict who can view their online photos. Some of these social networks even make money by selling the researchers "firehose" access to all those posted photos.

Ditto Labs is one such company that earns a living by scanning photos and analyzing the images. The company says it doesn't need to notify individuals that their images are being harvested and sent to Ditto Labs' clients because the pictures can be viewed by anyone online. The company calls what it does "evidence-based marketing" because it can tell from the photos how people interact with or use various products. It has discovered, for example, that a number of people put Chobani yogurt in the cup holder of their car.

Wow, that is just so voyeuristic. How many photos of yogurt-eating people riding in cars did it take to come up with that inference?

This kind of service wouldn't even be legal in the European Union because the member countries have agreed that individual privacy trumps innovative marketing services that usurp personal images any day. I realize that the service offered by companies like Ditto Labs is just another form of analyzing big data, but that still doesn't calm the queasiness I get when I think of how we Americans are all giving up our right to privacy in the name of progressive technology.

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