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Subliminal Persuasion is Against the Law.
by Steve Gibson, Gibson Research Corporation

While assembling the content of this OptOut site, I encountered pages on several web sites that gave me quite a chill. Here's a quote from one site's CEO:

"... businesses must look beyond their Web sites to create new ways for entire organizations to speak with one voice to each individual customer, anywhere the customer initiates contact, and in a way that represents a deep understanding of each customer's tastes and preferences."

After public discussion of the incursions into our privacy space created by the ambitions of these "consumer profiling and tracking" companies, I received the following eMail from the Vice President of Marketing of one of these companies. As you'll see, he politely invited me into a dialog about my concerns:


Would love to chat with you. What is a phone number and a good time to chat? We spend a lot of time on the privacy issue and want to be sure we understand all concerns. You have very little to fear from our technology. While we may be able to suggest you might like Miles Davis, we have no idea of any personally identifiable information (e.g. don't know your name, email address, city, state, age, gender, etc.).

Several things about this note rubbed me the wrong way, and since my thoughts had recently been crystallizing around these issues, I took the opportunity of replying to him to frame my concerns more coherently than I had before:

Hi (name withheld),

I am somewhat surprised by the depth, strength, and passion of my own reactions when I'm told that your company, with which I've never had any explicit, deliberate, or overt contact, might be able to tell me that the person typing here at this keyboard likes Miles Davis. Can't you see that the fact that you don't know my name is totally irrelevant to the breach of personal privacy you are defending, and from which you are profiting?

Without my knowledge or permission, you quietly monitor and surveil my activities and the choices I make as I move across the Internet. You compile a secret dossier describing my habits, my personal preferences, my search engine queries, my past purchases and spending, and even the contents of many web forms I have filled out and submitted. Then, having compiled a secret dossier on me — specifically and uniquely me — you deliberately seek to influence me in order to profit from that influence which you now have now gained over me.

For the past 25 years I have been an active participant in the creation of the technology we are all using today. I know how it all works, I've had my hands in it, I love it, and I have respect for it.

You don't.

You came along and stole it. You have usurped, raped, and twisted this fundamentally beautiful technology for your own profiteering ends. And in doing so you have spoiled something wonderful for the rest of us.

I don't want YOU to know ANYTHING about ME, yet you can profile me on a whim, and you see nothing wrong with doing that. Game theorists understand the notion of a zero-sum game: For every winner there's a loser. Physicists understand conservation of macroscopic properties like energy. In both cases they mean that you can not create something from nothing.

So, if your knowing that I prefer Miles Davis is valuable to you or your clients, from where did that value derive? Value is not created out of thin air. I believe that you have stolen something valuable from me without asking, without my knowledge, and certainly without my permission. You have stolen my unique identity and codified it inside your databases. You have invaded my privacy for your own profit, and what you have taken diminishes me.

. . . and you want me to say that's okay?

If you are able to "deliver tailored ads to my desktop" for the purpose of increasing the likelihood that I will purchase your client's products instead of someone else's, that's tantamount to seduction through subliminal persuasion. And it is quite properly against the law.

. . . and you want me to say that's okay?

When I read billboards while driving my car down the freeway, I encounter the same billboards as everyone else. The signage is not "per driver". When I flip through the pages of a magazine, I encounter the same ads as everyone else. The magazine knows nothing about me, and I don't want it to.

When I watch television with my family, I see the same commercials as the rest of my family. But imagine for a moment that your online profiles for my family were able to individually tailor the television commercials we each received, and that everyone had their own televisions in the living room -- which we could all see at once. Wouldn't we be curious to see which commercials we each received based upon your Internet profiles of us? Wouldn't some eyebrows be raised in voyeuristic curiosity? And wouldn't that be a fundamental violation of our individual rights to privacy? Yet, isn't this precisely what you're doing and defending, and from which you are profiting?

I believe that what you're doing by "customizing", "targeting", "tailoring" and "identifying" the nameless Internet consumer is FUNDAMENTALLY different from anything that has come before. And I believe that doing this secretly and WITHOUT MY PERMISSION is FUNDAMENTALLY wrong, unethical, and EVIL.

... and I won't say it's okay. I'm going to do everything within my power to explain to consumers exactly what's going on and what's being stolen from us without our knowledge or permission. Then I'm going to create new technology to give them the choice that you have deliberately denied them. I'm going to give them the power to OptOut, and to disappear from your radar screens forever.

You wrote: "We spend a lot of time on the privacy issue and want to be sure we understand all concerns." But I don't believe you for a moment. I don't think you have ANY respect for me or my rights whatsoever. You're profiting from my seduction, how is that good for me?

You wrote: "You have very little to fear from our technology." It is not your technology I fear. I created that technology. It is wonderful and ethically neutral. It is technology in the hands of those who are abusing it that worries me greatly.

Being spied on, being placed under surveillance, and tracked around the Internet, is NOT what the technology was designed for. You have taken something wonderful and turned it against us all. That is not okay.

— Steve Gibson.

After giving these questions a lot of thought, and thanks to extensive discussion of these issues in the grc.com 'OptOut' newsgroup forum, I believe that:

Targeting, profiling, and tracking individuals across the
Internet is UNETHICAL unless the individual has given
these companies explicit permission to do so.  Absent
explicit permission
, surveillance represents spying
which should be prevented, banned, and outlawed.

Moreover . . . following up on the point I made in my note above, it might very well be that a compelling legal case could be made to support the contention that the custom selection of web site advertising content based upon profiles gained through stealthful surveillance is tantamount to subliminal persuasion — and therefore unlawful.

A Subtle Distinction

Please don't misunderstand my intent here.

I am NOT against Internet advertising — at all! I fully recognize that revenue from advertisers supports many wonderful and worthwhile Internet services and facilities. And maximizing relative advertisement performance by counting the "click throughs" from various ads at various web sites, makes all kinds of sense. I'm all for that.

What I object to, is that WITHOUT ASKING OUR PERMISSION — and without our knowledge — the users of a specific personal computer's Internet browser are under continuous surveillance — even if 'cookies' are disabled or being blocked — as they move throughout the web. Internet browsers are being individually monitored and tracked as their users move around the Internet and dossiers profiling their activities are being compiled without their permission for the sole purpose of influencing them without their knowledge. That's what my objection is about.

How do you feel about being watched while you surf and having profiles assembled about you without your knowledge or permission?

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Last Edit: Oct 06, 2003 at 14:29 (7,499.33 days ago)Viewed 2 times per day