If you want to breach people’s privacy, at least offer relevant recommendations and ads!

Craig Grannell wishes that if companies want to track his every move and preference, they’d do something more useful with the data they collect
LG Smart TV

The past week saw LG getting angry glances and slapped wrists from the internet. Its televisions were caught sending details regarding owners’ viewing habits (from both local files and broadcast telly) to the manufacturer, regardless of activated privacy settings. Cue: plenty of hand-wringing, angry bloggers angrily blogging, the promise of an investigation, and LG taking the “positive step” of saying it would issue an update (presumably versus the “commercial suicide step” of telling everyone to go away and that it really quite liked knowing who was watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians over and over).

Minority report? Not quite

LG data collection

The strange thing is, most reports centred on LG taking data regardless of privacy settings, rather than questioning why it was taking data at all. Perhaps that’s because data collection is now so commonplace and ubiquitous that it’s entirely unremarkable. After all, Sony’s PlayStation was recently shown to log any Blu-ray discs watched on the unit, and online practically anything you sign up to tracks your every move, building up a virtual network of your activity and preferences.

The tin-hat lobby would have you believe this is the foundation of a rapidly approaching Minority Report-style future, but with computers rather than psychics able to peer into your mind. You’ll turn a corner and a billboard will angrily protest that you ate the “wrong” breakfast cereal, while the next will scream at you to make sure you grab [your favourite chocolate bar] before you go home. A third will urge you to download the new limited-release album by [your favourite artist], preferably before you get the chance to question why anything digital should be limited at all.

Reality is a far cry from the movies, though, largely because it’s rather more banal and comparatively shambolic. In the world of data collection, it’s easy to be angered by privacy breaches, but I’m increasingly frustrated by ad- and product-targeting that has all the focus, direction and finesse of a paralytic darts player armed with a bazooka. It seems that regardless of how much any one system knows about me, the recommendations are as generic as they come.

How many toothbrushes does one man need?

Facebook ads
Amazon toothbrushes

On Facebook, I’m bombarded with adverts that bear so little relation to my actual preferences that it’s laughable. “Games You May Like,” it chirps, merrily boasting that 5,000,000 people are currently playing Angry Birds Friends, a statement that does nothing more than make me think 5,000,000 people really need to find a better game to play. Then come flagged posts for Xbox and Samsung smartphones, which rather more murmur “bloke in his 30s — might like tech and games” than proudly bellow “here are your fine-tuned and entirely personalised adverts, sir”.

Even sites supposed to be better than this often aren’t. I recently bought an electric toothbrush on Amazon (I know — my crazy journo lifestyle is just so rock ’n’ roll!), and now every time I visit, the site is busy trying to sell me more toothbrushes. I know you can specifically tell Amazon to not use certain purchases for recommendations, but I shouldn’t have to. I just bought a toothbrush! I only have one mouth! I am not aiming to open up a toothbrush store of my own! I don’t need another!

I suppose asking for a little intelligence in the systems that track us is currently a bit much to ask, and it marks them out as only very slightly evolved from the kind of garbage injected into your eyes during television commercial breaks. Maybe this will change in the future, as systems become more powerful and start making better connections. For now, though, it seems rather pointless for the LGs, Sonys, Facebooks and Amazons of this world to keep swallowing down data when they regurgitate recommendations that have barely more accuracy than a horoscope.