I work in the ad tech industry, which means that I track people online for a living. Mainly, I do it because the industry has interesting computer science problems and because the job pays well.
I will not defend ad tech. Mainly because ad tech is not important enough to humanity to defend. However, I do believe that ad tech’s algorithms are important to humanity because they can be applied to important areas, such as your health, personal finance and education. However, I have a different point today.
I have a subtle point about privacy. I have noticed that at no point does the ad tech industry need to know who you really are. Ad tech does not need to know what your real name is, what your parents real names are, your actual street address or any other piece of information that identifies you as you to another human being. It is a little bit hard to explain, but I will try. Ad tech is powered by algorithms and these algorithms operate in an abstract space where your true identity is not important. Most ad tech knows you by a random number that was assigned to you. All your interests are also represented by random numbers. The place you live yet another. Ad tech algorithms only care about the relationships between these numbers, not what the numbers actually represent in the real world.
Here is how it works. You get assigned a random number, e.g. 123, to represent you. Then, ad tech will attempt to link your number, 123, with the numbers of boxes that represent products or services that you might be interested in. For example, a box A could be people who need a vacation and box B could be people who could be tempted to buy a new BMW. Ideally, if you really need a vacation and someone really wants to sell you that vacation, then a connection between 123 and A should be made. From ad tech’s perspective, the number 123 is linked to the box A. The algorithm does not need to use labels like “Alice Anderson” or “Bob Biermann”, because the numbers 1 and 2 will get the job done just fine — from a mathematical point of view.
At some point your true identity becomes interesting, long after ad tech has left the scene. At some point, somebody (e.g. a human being or a robot) might need to print your real name and street address on a card box box, put the product you ordered inside and ship it via DHL. Up until that exact point, your name, street address or any other personally identifiable information is utterly unimportant to anybody. Nobody cares and no advertisement algorithm needs to know. I think this is an important point.
Ad-tech algorithms, if not ad tech itself, can have a massive and positive impact on areas of life that you probably care about. For example, algorithms can help you with your health, personal finance, insurances, education, whether you should buy Bitcoin or Ether today, or whether you should attend job interview A instead of job interview B today, or your kids attend school X or Y. In these areas, relatively un-altered algorithms from ad tech can help. It is important to keep in mind, that again no algorithm needs to know your name in order to work. Not even if that algorithm is looking through your medical record and correlating your stats with the stats of million of other patient records.
Of course it is true that your real identity can be learned from seemingly anonymised data. It might even be fairly trivial to do so, using good old detective skills. Differential privacy has some fairly hard results in that area. However, the main point is that someone has to make a conscious decision to look into the data on a mission to find you and possibly design a new algorithm for that purpose.
Now I get to my main point. Yes, ad tech CAN know who you are with some detective work. However, ad tech does not NEED to know who you are in order to work. This is so important because it means that we can potentially harness the power of algorithms in areas of life that matter — without compromising the privacy of anybody. It is not going to be easy to obtain the granular and self-controlled privacy that is needed, but it is worthwhile. And that is why I joined ad tech in the first place, because the computer science problems are interesting and important — and well, interesting and important things tend to pay well.