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The Why, What and How of Digital Spying

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When the unknown secret of a US program called PRISM first became public last month, a lot of people across the world were surprised by the extent to which they are vulnerable to online monitoring by government organizations. Though the ethical nature of this surveillance activity is debatable, one cannot deny the sheer power of BIG DATA in executing this kind of an activity at such a scale.

Similar to security establishments in various countries there are another set of organizations that also try to stitch together online information from various sources and identify their ‘target’. These belong to a category of organizations known as Online Advertising Networks and Publishers.

The idea to target audiences based on ‘User Onsite Behavior’ and ‘Network Activities’ is not new, but technology advances in the form of Big Data analysis in recent years provides an effective tool to target audiences in real-time. To explain this in simple terms; it means, if a user is seen on any of the news sites, business sites or male fashion sites, a reasonable guess, based on current sterrotypes would be to assume that the user is male. If the same user visits an eCommerce site the acquired information can be used to provide a personalized products view to the user, which increases the chances for online purchase.

How does it work?

Whenever a user visits certain websites or performs certain activities like clicking on various links, searching with special text, either the Site Publisher or Advertising Network sets certain information in the form of a cookie in the visitor’s browser. In some cases, the Site Publisher also passes the visit details on to a Web Analytics System (Adobe Analytics, Google Analytics etc.) for further analysis. This information is processed using BIG DATA tools and the outcome of the analysis is used to create a unique ‘profile’. The data is further used for defining audience segments. When visitors return to a specific site using the same web browser, those profiles can be used by publishers for personalized content and also by advertisers to position their online ads based on the resolved audience segment. Properly targeted ads and personalized content not only fetches more consumer interest but also helps publishers in charging a premium for these ads over random advertising.

Over the last few years when print publishing was showing signs of decline in terms of readership, more and more publishers and advertisers are shifting their focus to the digital world for finding new sources for revenue.Over the last few years when print publishing was showing signs of decline in terms of readership, more and more publishers and advertisers are shifting their focus to the digital world for finding new sources for revenue.Since these technologies provide a way to target their audience, they will continue to engage in snooping to track their prey, whether it is ethical or unethical will always be a matter of debate.

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