August 23, 2014 – by Per Christensson
So you're walking down the aisle of your favorite clothing store when the band on your wrist beeps.
You glance down at your wrist and a small screen tells you to check out the blue shirt in the back of the store. You get out your phone and it displays a picture of the shirt. When you get to the back of the store, sure enough, there is the shirt in your size. You try on the shirt and it looks great. You bring it to the checkout counter and scan your wristband to pay for it.
How did your wristband know what shirt you would like? It received the information from the smartphone in your pocket, which in turn retrieved the data from the Internet. It turns out Google has been tracking your browsing and online shopping habits. The data stored on Google's servers was transferred to an app on your phone. When you walked into the store, an "iBeacon" detected your phone and sent you a recommendation from Google. It matched your personal profile with the available inventory in the store and guided you to the perfect shirt.
Next, you walk into a department store and a message on your wristband informs you of a sale on jeans. It guides you to the exact location of the jeans section and a few more recommendations pop up. But this time, it's not Google providing the suggestions, it's Facebook. You view the jeans on your phone and next to each one, it shows which of your friends have purchased the same or similar jeans. It also includes reviews of each one and orders them by the highest review. You try the highest reviewed option, and sure enough, the jeans fit perfectly. You bring the jeans to the checkout counter and scan your wristband to pay for them. The receipt pops up on your phone and you continue on your way.
So how did Google get such personal information about you? Well any time you visit a website that uses Google Analytics or has Google ads, Google can track your behavior. If you are logged in with your Google account, Google saves this data in your profile. It's how Google shows you ads that are related to your recent website visits or online purchases. If you have a credit card linked to your Google account, which might be for Google Play or another service, Google can access your purchase history from your credit card company (if you have not opted out of sharing the information). By aggregating all this information, Google might know your style better than your best friend.
What about Facebook? Well, it might use the content of your posts, the pictures and videos you've published, and the places you've been to build a pretty accurate profile for you. By combining your profile with the interests of your friends, Facebook can find some some pretty accurate recommendations for you. You've probably seen some of these already in your news feed. The social component adds an intangible aspect that allows your friends to override your personal tastes and recommend products you might not have otherwise considered.
This type of targeted advertising may seem intrusive and even scary, but it has its benefits. After all, accurate recommendations are certainly better than erroneous or irrelevant ones. By understanding knowing your personal taste, companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft can provide a more efficient and even more desirable shopping experience. But it is still one step further away from the privacy you once had.