Is “Creepy” A Subjective Measure?

Speaking last week on an industry panel, I advised the audience of digital marketing professionals to “Stop doing creepy things with your data and your customers’ data.

To which I was told by the moderator, “Well, ‘creepy’ is a little subjective, though, isn’t it?

You know it when you see it,” I replied.

About five or six people in the audience laughed and obviously got the reference to Justice Potter Stewart’s now infamous phrase.

The problem, however, is a real one. For many in the room and certainly those in adtech today, the benefits and opportunities available from personal data, location tracking, and preference inference are too great to just walk away from. The ability to calculate the ROI of every ad dollar spent, down to the penny, via attribution tracking is intoxicating to an industry that has long lived under the famous Wanamaker quote, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.

And yet, we now have this new “Hypertrending” App from Foursquare:

This heat map is designed to show you and share information from people using their apps or leveraging their location services tools. You can see where the hot spots are and where it might be better to go if you are an introvert while in Austin at SXSW. The map leverage the Foursquare panel data, which is another way to say, it doesn’t necessarily have every person’s location, more it leverages a group of opted-in users to extrapolate trends in the data. Without going into the issues with this approach mathematically, the main issue is that Foursquare fully understands that there are privacy questions here and is using this app as a way to have a dialogue with their customers.

An initial response from an industry professional shows the concern perfectly:

I almost feel this is a dare from Foursquare. Pushing us to ask questions like the above.

    “Which apps are feeding data to Foursquare?”
    “Who is caught in this ‘first-party’ panel data?”
    “What platforms use Foursquare data and location services?”

The realization for many is that Foursquare is testing the waters, but also subtly revealing that their SDK or location services platform is running in the background of more than just their own apps. This means, even if you don’t use Foursquare, an app you do use could be leveraging their data platform and inadvertently supplying your data to this tool. As they state, “A mix of data from our own apps or other apps that use our technology

The reality is that the “creepy” map view they have exposed to the world is part of every location-based tracking system. Foursquare is just one of the first to let the world actually see (and use) what they have had as a backend view of their data for years. When platforms that deal in location data try to raise money or ‘wow’ investors or partners, they typically will show this type of map with real-time or near-real-time location tracking of users. I’ve seen countless “cool” map views from location services platforms that show human swarming effects by leveraging location pings from cellphones or Wi-Fi hotspot signal tracking.

The real question on this is “what’s the harm?” Realistically, Foursquare is showing this and stating that all of this data is totally anonymized and, therefore, okay or acceptable in its use. That may or may not be true. For example, I certainly think some of the studies we have seen in urban planning and emergency evacuation or other civil exercises is worth the opportunity. Even traffic patterns have been drastically changed by leveraging real-time location statistics to route vehicles in smarter patterns (or, not so smart too).

The harm we see is not necessarily an anonymized map of hot spots at SXSW. The harm is that this is never where it stops. The harm is that apps are not anonymizing the individuals by accessing their location data, but specifically targeting those individuals with ads and other offers based on their location. While Foursquare doesn’t appear to share the list of every App that uses their location services, you can absolutely count on the fact that they are using location data to target ads specifically to those people that are moving in and out of certain location radius points or polygons.

Also, can we stop saying “it’s anonymous, so this is fine.”

Any application that says they do “location” but in an anonymous way is specifically choosing to ignore that most humans have defined patterns. You go home at night and sleep in the same place and you wake up in the morning and commute to work. Which means, with literally a public record view of your property tax payments and your LinkedIn profile, companies can immediately unwind your “anonymous” ID and identify you.

Location data is too much of a good thing for most advertisers to ignore, and that’s why Foursquare’s experiment with the Hypertrending App is getting a lot of attention. Just keep in mind, the creepy map view of where everyone is, where they are going, what places they are headed toward is not new. It’s just one of the first times you realized that it exists. Go to any major location platforms’ offices: Uber, Snap, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Lyft and thousands of other apps that you haven’t heard and you will see these same maps. In many cases, you are personally in these maps because you’ve granted access to your location.

And you know it when you see it.

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