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May 25, 2012

My Name Is Paul Ballard, and I Do NOT Approve of This Ad


No, this is not a political piece with images of solemn faced workers or highly animated graphs that sing out optimism to a bouncy tune.  This post is about something much scarier than that.  Your privacy online.

It’s should be no secret that nearly every move you make online is being recorded, cataloged, and aggregated.  Every search, every “Like” or “+1”, every Tweet, every picture posted; virtually every click of the mouse ends up in the bowels of some database somewhere in the web.  Many online and social media companies explain this away with the assurance that no “identifiable” information is being stored.  What they mean is they aren’t recording your name, email, or social security number in the deluge of other information they’re recording.  That tends to make us feel a bit better, after all what can they really know about you if they don’t have that information?  A lot!

The potential for misuse of this information was brought home to me this weekend when I was viewing a blog post from a friend and former colleague, JP Rangaswami.  JP is an industry luminary and also Chief Scientist for  In his blog, he mentions that a friend of his was browsing online when he ran across a sponsored ad with text that stated “JP Rangaswami enjoyed reading the reviews of this $9000 speaker cable”.  It seems safe to assume that sponsored means somebody paid for that ad to appear.  Note it didn’t mention that JP had taken any overt action intending to share his activities, just that he had read the reviews.  He had in fact written a review for that product in jest, but the ad doesn’t mention that.

While JP’s humility probably wouldn’t let him admit this, he’s kind of a big deal.  A big deal that whoever sponsored this ad was looking to cash in on trying to sell their product.   Now that in and of itself is scary enough, but another aspect of this also concerned me.  Is it possible that this advertisement was tailored to his friend because the site somehow had knowledge of their relationship?  Is it possible that products you view or even searches you perform could now or in the near future be turned into advertisements for your friends?  That is truly frightening.

Now don’t worry readers, I’m not quite ready to jump off the grid entirely.  Not yet anyway.  But starting to think long and hard about what I actually intend to share has me rethinking some of my social networking and online activities.  For example, do I want to put my entire social graph on Facebook when I know that they have a history of following their own agenda in spite of what customers want?  I know that Facebook, Google, and all of the other ad revenue sites employee statistical and analytic geniuses to find new and improved ways to use all of that information to target advertisements, including some that are under investigation by authorities.  I’m reminded of a quote I saw online, ironically on Facebook.

If you’re not paying for it, YOU are the product!

About the Author

is a Chief Architect specializing in large scale distributed system development and enterprise software processes. Paul has more than twenty years of development experience including being a former Microsoft MVP, a speaker at technical conferences such as Microsoft Tech-Ed and VSLive, and a published author. Prior to working on the Windows platform, he built software using a vast array of technologies including Java, Unix, C, and even OS/2.