You can’t hide who you are

Perhaps it’s a product you perused while shopping online that now stalks you across the internet, or diamond rings and honeymoon packages that were shunted your way just before your significant other popped the question, or maybe it’s something you are sure you only ever mentioned verbally that suddenly appears on your social media feed — the creepiness factor is reaching new heights.

The fact is simply that your accumulated online data is not your own. For some time marketers have been using it to sell you stuff, and now politicians are exploiting it to sell you ideas. This has become clear in recent revelations of how detailed data from 50-million Facebook users was exploited in an information warfare campaign to influence political outcomes in the United Kingdom, the United States and Kenya. 

Dirty data tricks

The Guardian Media Group has reported how Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team, used illegitimately obtained data from millions of Facebook profiles of US voters to build a powerful software programme that would predict and influence choices in the 2016 US presidential election.

Separately, the UK’s information commissioner is investigating Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit referendum, which decided the UK would leave the European Union.

In the US elections case, The Guardian reported, the data was collected with an app built by Aleksandr Kogan. Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users were paid to take a personality test and agree to have their data collected for academic use.


In reality, the app also collected information from the test-takers’ Facebook friends and the accumulated data of 50-million users was sold on to Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook has insisted there was no data breach. Instead, an individual licensed to harvest information for research purposes from Facebook users, Kogan, contravened the agreement when he sold it on to a third party, Cambridge Analytica.

Paul Bernal, a senior lecturer in information technology, intellectual property and media law at the University of East Anglia’s law school, explains in an opinion piece written for The Independent in the UK that this indeed is not a data breach.

“In many ways Cambridge Analytica is using Facebook exactly as the social media platform was designed to be used. This is how Facebook works,” he writes.

The systems Facebook designed to profile people to target them for advertising and content have now also been used for political gain.

Cookie jar

Facebook is not the only platform out there collecting online user data to profile consumers, and the science of digital marketing has rapidly grown into a sophisticated and complex animal.

It began with something innocent enough – a cookie.

“All websites have cookies embedded in them. That’s really just a tracking code,” says Marc du Plessis, joint chief executive of Spark Media.

The cookie tracks and records several things, including user behaviour.

Elsewhere in the world, websites might be required by law to notify consumers about the use of cookies and to agree to the use of cookies on their platform. In South Africa, this is not the case and users do not need to be made overtly aware of the use of cookies.

That is until the Protection of Public Information Act (Popi) comes into effect (See “Say goodbye to unsolicited calls and SMSes”). Although some sections of the Act are already in effect, the more significant ones will only take effect a year after a presidential proclamation, which is anticipated later this year.

“Say I’m on the Bona [magazine] website and I click on the beauty section. I’m then classified as someone interested in beauty,” says Du Plessis.

Once “cookied” by a website, you can become the subject of a marketing strategy known as “retargeting”. This is what is happening when a product you looked at on one site follows you in adverts seen on other sites.

So if, for example, he says, when you are shopping on Takealot.com and look at a Lego set, the cookie embedded in your browser there means that other website adverts for the Lego set will come your way.

But cookies are also collected by brand websites to make up data sets of their customers. They then invest in the services of data management platforms, which essentially stitch together databases to help advertisers to better segment and target consumers. These databases may also include those provided by third parties who typically pay website publishers to harvest their user data.

The market in South Africa is dominated by just a handful of these platforms, Du Plessis says.

Once you have the specific consumers you want to reach, you go to a programmatic buying desk where you bid for digital marketing space. “It’s like a stock exchange,” he explains.

Advertisers bid for digital marketing space available online and, using programmatic advertising software, this bidding is done automatically and in real time. In South Africa, there is more supply than demand. It won’t necessarily go to an open bid every single time, says Josh Dovey, the chief executive of OMD. 

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