Facebook and the NSA should team up to put data to good use


The Washington Post.

Mark Zuckerberg is angry that the National Security Agency is violating Facebook users’ privacy, which is a bit like the Silicon Valley equivalent of “Get your government hands off my Medicare.” He thinks users should be upset about this, too.

But you know what? I’m not particularly fazed.

Rather than having a turf war over who gets to surveil whom, maybe Facebook and the NSA should team up. The NSA probably already has a rich database of my calls, texts, travels, toenail clippings and repressed childhood memories; maybe, aided by such additional Big Data, Facebook could finally figure out how to show me ads for things I actually want to buy.

Allegedly the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click on ads (well, that or how to help teenagers swap naked pictures of themselves). But if the ads I’m seeing today represent our best minds’ best work with the best Big Data available, color me unimpressed.

The department store pioneer John Wanamaker famously said he knew that half of his advertising budget was wasted but he didn’t know which half. Even that dour assessment dramatically overestimates the efficacy of modern advertising. Today, of all online display ads, the share that gets clicked on is not 1 in 2; it’s somewhere between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1,000, according to marketing analysts and some of the ad networks themselves.

That’s a pretty lousy batting average. Yet if you consider the number of times you have ever clicked on or even noticed an online ad supposedly curated just for you, these numbers may not be surprising. They certainly didn’t astonish me. Facebook, despite being able to track what music I like, where I’ve vacationed, which Wikipedia rabbit holes I’ve fallen down and what embarrassing hypochondriacal ailments I’ve googled (Are those bedbug bites? Do I have mono again and, if so, did my spleen just explode?), has strange beliefs about who I am and what I’d be interested in buying.

For a while last year, I was seeing a lot of ads for Mormon dating services. “Meet local Mormon singles just like you!” Facebook urged, not realizing that I was in a relationship and, perhaps also relevant, not Mormon. Just a few weeks later, I was seeing ads for discount engagement rings. A few weeks after that, Facebook plastered my feeds with ads for diapers and child-care services.

Dang, I thought, Facebook thinks I move fast. All that was missing from this ad sequence were the shells for my father’s shotgun.

The ads I’ve seen since then (on Facebook, Google Display Network sites and other highly algorithmic advertising platforms) exhibit less narrative, alas, but are equally unhelpful.

Online ads served to me usually fall into one of two categories: things that leave me feeling intensely, uncomfortably judged – teeth-whitening, weight-loss or hair-removal products – or things I already own and do not intend to duplicate. For example, the boots I bought on Zappos (but not socks, waterproofing spray or other complementary products I might actually want), the credit card I use, Broadway shows I’ve seen, the hotel I just booked.

Likewise, my significant other sees ads from test-prep companies offering to help him gain admission to a university from which he already has a degree. Someday, the ads promise, he might even get accepted to the school where he currently teaches.

Remember, these are the ads curated specifically for our clicking and consumption pleasure by firms that have their pick of the world’s greatest talent and where even interns draw salaries of about $75,000 annualized. So if one in 1,000 is the batting average in Silicon Valley, I cannot even imagine what it is at the super-secretive NSA – where the highest-paid workers make about as much as the mid-tier employees at a place such as Facebook, where HR can’t even import bunches of talented H-1B visa holders and where the mission is more complicated and diffuse than “get people to click and then maybe buy stuff.”

Excuse me, then, if I’m skeptical about the greater social welfare benefits that come from secretly collecting infinite reams of private citizens’ data – benefits supposedly calibrated to outweigh the costs of intrusion and distrust. (What good is ubiquitous surveillance if, after more than a week, the world still can’t find a missing 777?) Maybe tech firms and government agencies need to hoover up ever more data about my indecipherable mutterings to my cat. Or maybe they need to start proving they’re doing something useful with the invasive data they already have.

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