1 of 9
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Allie Hill shows an ad for Pedialyte that showed up on her Twitter feed shortly after she mentioned Pedialyte in a text message to a friend and posted an Instagram story showing Electrolyte Solution, at the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 11, 2019.

Editor's note: This article is part of the Deseret News' annual Ten Today series, which explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.

SALT LAKE CITY — When a Minnesota father found Target mail ads for maternity clothing and nursery furniture addressed to his teenage daughter in the early 2000s, he angrily stormed into a local store to confront the manager, The New York Times reported.

It turns out, Target knew the young woman was pregnant before her father did. Based on items she bought, an algorithm assigned her a "pregnancy prediction" score and estimated her due date within a small window, according to the Times.

That was more than 10 years ago. Since then, marketers have become even more sophisticated. Today, bits of code embedded across the web track the online activity of everyone from kids to senior citizens. Myriad companies collect that data, creating detailed profiles of individual users and selling them to advertisers so they can serve up digital ads with a personal touch — so personal that many are surprised, even creeped out, by how well the internet seems to know intimate details of their lives, which might include their financial history, sexual orientation, health status, political views and religious beliefs.

The constant bombardment of targeted advertising designed to be manipulative, along with the increasing convenience of online shopping, can leave some people feeling jealous and dissatisfied, experts say, constantly aware of all the possibilities just a click away. Each year around Passover and Easter, the Deseret News takes a closer look at how the Ten Commandments are relevant to the modern world, especially when it comes to technology. This year, we focused on the last commandment, "Thou shalt not covet" — an age-old charge to avoid jealousy and pining for things you don't own.

A new, national Deseret News poll finds that a strong majority of Americans — 62 percent — say they are not OK with targeted advertising because they don't like having their online behavior tracked or analyzed. However, this number is down from 2012, when the Pew Research Center asked the same question, and the percentage who say they are OK with targeted advertising because it means they see ads for things they're really interested in has risen from 28 percent to 38 percent.

Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 are the most likely to say they are OK with targeted advertising because it helps them get information about things they are interested in, according the survey, which was conducted online by YouGov April 4-5 among 1,000 Americans. But 50 percent of young people also worry about spending too much time on their phones — a higher percentage than any other age group.

According to Ronald Hill, professor of marketing at American University, advertising can enhance a person's well-being by connecting them to products that are useful. At the same time, advertising continuously presents consumers with messages that they are not good enough and will not be fulfilled until they buy a certain product.

"We already have a generation that is distracted by so many things," said Hill. "From a Buddhist mindfulness perspective, (online advertising) takes us away from living in a particular moment. It distracts us from the things we should be spending time on that provide greater fulfillment. It creates a time sink that causes more stress than it’s probably worth."

As smartphones and internet access have become ineliminable fixtures of modern life, data on what we buy, read, watch and talk about has become valuable currency. In many cases, users opt to give up data in exchange for convenience. But in doing so, they may also be surrendering not just their anonymity, but also their autonomy to act without being emotionally swayed by marketers.

“There is still a sense that, ‘I choose to be influenced by ads. I can say no,’” said Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. “In some ways, that’s still true. But at the same time, I think it’s harder than ever to be online and to be in a world where you are immune to ads and they don’t influence your behavior at all.”

In 2017, an internal report crafted by Facebook executives revealed that the social network told advertisers that by monitoring posts, interactions and photos, it could track when teens feel “insecure,” “worthless,” “stressed,” “useless” and a “failure” in order to micro-target ads down to “moments when young people need a confidence boost,” The Guardian reported.

Businesses not only learn what you buy but also attempt to understand what triggers you to buy, said Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, who added that triggering a purchase might involve exploiting insecurities and negative emotions.

“Marketing tries to tap into our emotions, but the traditional way has to rely on generalities about populations,” said Arrieta. “Targeted ads allow them to do it for you and only you, knowing you deeply, and immediately having feedback on what the result is.”

Influence can happen in an instant. It takes people just 1.7 seconds to consume mobile content on Facebook, and people can recall content after just a quarter of a second, according to Facebook.

But that influence could be causing people to spend more time coveting things they don't have, with potential implications for satisfaction in other areas of life. For example, a 2017 study from Brigham Young University found that higher levels of materialism were associated with decreased marriage satisfaction and a decreased sense that marriage is important.

"Materialism is rampant in the developed world anyway," said Hill. "Now, you think about material things more than you have in the past because you are confronted with it more regularly when you allow media to be part of virtually every waking moment of your life."

Tracking

Allie Hill, 22, a senior majoring in accounting at the University of Utah, was surprised to see an advertisement on Twitter for the beverage Pedialyte shortly after texting a friend about it and posting photos with an off-brand version of the drink on Snapchat and Instagram on her way to a workout class.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Allie Hill shows a Snapchat her friend shared showing Electrolyte Solution shortly before Hill saw an ad for Pedialyte on her Twitter feed, at the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 11, 2019.

“I was shocked. That is so creepy!” said Hill (no relation to Ronald Hill). “I understand, if my search engine had it stored in there, but I never searched for it.” She added that she bought the beverage from Sam’s Club several weeks prior to seeing the ad.

“It makes me feel like my information isn't nearly as private as I would hope it would be," she said.

Experts say there are a plethora of ways companies can learn what products you’re interested in, including search engine inquiries, store loyalty cards, credit card purchasing history, location tracking, photos and the online habits of your friends. Suggestions can be so on point, many have wondered if their phones or personal devices like Amazon's Alexa or Google Home are listening to their conversations. Companies like Amazon, Apple and Google have repeatedly denied those theories.

“Feedback for real time location tracking is almost instantaneous," said King. "If you are in a Nordstrom, they know you are there. If you’re with a friend and you both have the Facebook app running on your phone, Facebook will know you’re in Nordstrom and you’re with your friend. They know a lot about your relationship with that person.”

"You never notice ads that don’t matter, but you definitely notice when they’re spot on,” she added.

The largest culprits of tracking online behavior are Google (by a lot), Facebook, Twitter and AppNexus, according to research from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Princeton. In addition to tracking people who use their services directly, these companies act as third-party trackers on a large percentage of other websites.

Google Analytics, a product that tracks and reports website traffic to the company’s ad-targeting systems, was found on almost 70 percent of sites, according to the Princeton study published in 2016. DoubleClick, a dedicated ad-serving system from Google, was found on close to 50 percent of sites. That means Google knows nearly every website you've visited, what you've looked at and clicked on, and is putting that info together to serve you ads on every corner of the web.

In comparison, Facebook has trackers in around 30 percent of the top 10,000 sites on the web and 32 percent of the top 500 android apps, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A new Vermont law, the first of its kind, requires companies that buy and sell third-party personal data to register with the Secretary of State in an effort to create more transparency. Fast Company published a list of more than 120 data brokers that registered with the state, ranging from from organizations that help landlords research potential tenants or deliver marketing leads to insurance companies, to sites that allow users to search people's names, addresses and phone numbers like Spokeo, ZoomInfo and White Pages.

The law, however, doesn’t require data brokers to disclose who’s in their databases, what data they collect, or who buys it. Nor does it require the companies to give consumers access to their own data or let them opt out of data collection.

"A law like this could be helpful, or a way of frustrating consumers who look at the list and realize, 'wow, I have a lot of work to do to actually protect my information,'" said King, who hopes that as people realize the risks, more regulations will be created to protect consumers.

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services for local news and weather or other information and might not know their data is being shared with others, The New York Times found. The Times reviewed an unnamed database of location data from more than a million phones in the New York area and easily identified a number of individuals, even though personal information like names, phone numbers and addresses were not included in the data.

Cuebiq is one company, based in New York City, that analyzes anonymous location data to help retailers, researchers and other clients.

“What we have now are many more touch points that are driving the purchase decision. Gaining a fuller understanding of that and the offline behavior of consumers at scale is essential for marketers to know how marketing stimuli are working and when they are most effective,” said Valentina Marastoni-Bieser executive vice president of marketing, who said Cuebiq has no interest in personal details. “We do not assess data on individual mobility patterns. We are interested in big data traffic patterns.”

Ethics

Log in to your Google account and visit location history to see a timeline and map of everywhere you’ve ever taken your phone if you’ve allowed Google to save your location. (You can still use Google Maps even if you have turned off this setting.)

Log in to Facebook and you can browse, for free, the extensive list of categories that may be used to target people when posting an ad. These include zip code, income, educational level, Internet browser and operating system used, the age of a person’s kids and any number of interests from meditation to aviation.

Craig Ruttle, Associated Press
FILE - Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks to press and advertising partners at a Facebook announcement in New York in this November 6, 2007 file photo. The online hangout is mining friends' buying habits, and major Internet portals have bought companies to expand their reach and capabilities for "behavioral targeting" — all so advertisers can reach those most likely to buy with pitches most relevant to them, even as doing so means amassing more data on you.

According to King, there are few legal controls that dictate what data companies can collect and how they can use that data. There are steps individuals can take to protect their personal information, but many are unaware of how to adjust privacy settings on their favorite apps, not to mention take additional steps like downloading anti-tracking software, using ad-blockers and accessing the Internet through a virtual private network.

The Deseret News poll conducted April 4-5 also found that close to half — 46 percent — of Americans don’t know how to limit the personal information websites collect about them, though the figure is down from 60 percent in 2012 when the Pew Research Center asked the same question.

“Opt-outs are not effective. They are purposely hard and hidden. We also know from years of research that the vast majority of users never change the defaults,” said Arrieta.

“When users are pulled in by the convenience of these apps and the 'zero cost' of them, they are being hooked-and-baited into handing over data about themselves,” Dylan Curran, a tech consultant based in Waterford, Ireland. “It's the difference between a CCTV camera in a store, and somebody fixing your plumbing for free then secretly planting a camera in your bedroom so they can sell the videos.”

And while users may be able to make some adjustments and stop seeing annoying ads, it’s almost impossible to prevent websites from collecting their personal information altogether, even if they are doing things like clearing their search history and employing do not track settings on their web browser, King said. Journalist Julia Angwin writes in her book “Dragnet Nation” about her efforts to get off the grid, including quitting Google and carrying a "burner" phone. Her experiment showed it is virtually impossible for an average citizen to escape tracking.

“I have to nod to the fact that it is useful when you are able to discover and find things you want and need. It’s not all evil,” said King. “What is difficult is opting out and drawing clear boundaries that ‘I want to be in a space that is ad free.’ You should not be in a world where every aspect is commercialized.”

According to professor Ronald Hill, radio was the first invention that brought advertising into the home. "Now imagine everywhere you go, marketers are going with you," Hill said. "We have moved from having it rarely in our lives, to having it in our pockets."

He recommends people spend less time on their phones and more time engaging with people and things in the world around them.

Today, the stream of advertisements that promise to bring fulfillment with material items is endless, he said.

"The iPhone 7 leads to iPhone 8, which leads to iPhone 11 and then to iPhone 24," said Hill. "You can never get off this treadmill."

9 comments on this story

Targeted advertising could be used to discriminate against people, if different products, prices, job opportunities or apartment listings are offered to different people based on their race, gender or zip code, said King. Targeted ads can also affect how people feel about themselves, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Participants in the experiment saw themselves as more "sophisticated" or "environmentally conscious" after seeing what they thought were targeted ads using similar language.

“I hate that advertisers are trying to map my choices for me,” said Allie Hill. "At times, I have been a victim of impulse buying."

“I would rather use my own judgement and make my own buying decisions.”

Note: The Deseret News uses a variety of industry-standard tracking and analytics products to help us better understand the way people use our digital products, including Facebook and Twitter tags.