Creepy internet marketing

Ever wondered when you receive a new spam in your email account about how the spammers got a hold of your email? Well, I do, and not just because I have too much time on my hands. I am also cautious with all the sites where I use my primary email account. Gmail does a pretty good job protecting your email account by providing HTTPS access, which means that any data you enter in your browser on this channel is encrypted, hence secure. All other sites where I register this email account as my contact information are all either banking sites, amazon, ebay or other such reputed sites. All employ the standard practice of using HTTPS to secure my information from being sniffed. So when I began receiving a daily email from (employment site) it really bugged me. More so because I had browsed their site just a few days before being turned into an unwilling recipient of their literature. This could not be explained away as pure coincidence.

The only other site where I used my email address in recent times was with this website’s hosting provider. Whenever I have an issue with my blog, I enter my name and email address on a unsecured web page before I am allowed to proceed with a live chat with one of their technical support persons. Such casual use could have allowed any piece of software sitting between my computer and the server to capture my email address as well as any other data that was being transferred. A similar piece of software can very easily track all the website addresses that I visit. Connecting a user’s browsing pattern to their email address is even easier to accomplish. You see, every networking device is tagged with a unique identifier that is necessary for the communication protocol to work. This is called the MAC address. Besides the MAC address, there is also the IP address that is assigned to these devices. Collating information based on a common MAC address or IP address is one of the simplest software programs to write. It all seemed plausible in theory. But needing some more proof, I rested this theory for the time being.

Today I chanced upon a NY Times article titled ‘Creeps! Ads begin to follow web surfers’. I guessed the gist of it instantly. When I began reading, the plot revealed itself in as predictable a manner as a James Hadley Chase novel. A lady visited (an internet shoe store), shortlisted a shoe but decided against buying them then. On her subsequent visits to other sites, sites with advertising banners, a ad would be displayed with a picture of the exact same shoe. This kind of highly personalized marketing is only possible by gaining information through ‘surreptitious surveillance’. All that the site’s marketing team would have to do is share their customer’s IP address or their MAC address, or even plant a browser cookie, along with the product information and the digital marketing company will do the rest. Digitally stalk you with ads until it creeps you out. When the NY Times news reporter contacted Zappos they readily acknowledged the use of this marketing scheme (but without divulging details of the techniques they employed). For a company that required all it’s employees to undergo a 4-week ‘customer loyalty’ training this is a sad turn of events. built itself an enviable base of loyal customers with it’s unique culture of conducting business. This, above all other attributes, is what made it such a good purchase for in November 2009 for $1.2billion. It would seem that these companies have accepted the practice of ethical marketing as an unavoidable casualty in their need (greed) to make profit.

This story reminds me of a scene in the movie ‘Minority Report’ where John Anderton (‘Tom Cruise’) is stalked by futuristic advertising billboards, each billboard offering an ad to him by announcing his name having already identified him through a retinal scan on the go. In that scene, John Anderton is distinctly jumpy because he is on the run from the law. But notice how the rest of the commuters have accepted this intrusion in a zombie-istic manner?

31st August, 2010. Mumbai.

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