Ad exec: Online ad industry complicit in NSA PRISM datamining

A leading figure in digital advertising says the ad industry is complicit in the NSA mass-data spying program, PRISM.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

A high-profile, 20-year digital advertising industry executive says digital ad strategies that collect user data in the name of serving targeted ads to consumers is responsible for public acceptance of surveillance and data-gathering programs — specifically NSA's PRISM.

Digital Net Agency Chief Strategy Officer Skip Graham believes the advertising industry is complicit in helping pave the way for programs like PRISM by "softening" consumer viewpoints on privacy issues — effectively making the public feel complacent about handing over personal information online.


"How our industry works has absolutely no correlation to the efforts of the government. Or does it? How much of the data the NSA is using is data we convinced people it was safe to have stored? I’m afraid it’s going to turn out to be most of it," Graham told ZDNet via email this week.

Last Sunday, after the Edward Snowden video went live, Graham took to a large, private industry email list to call out the online advertising industry as complicit in the NSA scandal by making the public collection and use of personal information seem harmless, permissible, inevitable, and sometimes even desired.

It's no secret that the advertising and marketing industry are the masters of propaganda (and they know it, too). Graham lambasted his advertising industry peers, warning they were all culpable:

I don't believe it would have been possible for the NSA and the American government to so blithely act as if their current actions were not a violation of our constitutional rights without literally years of prior effort by some of the best minds marketing has to offer to convince the public that this was the reality of how data is gathered and can be maintained.

We went first and told the public not to worry, to have faith and to trust. We crafted the arguments, molded the opinions, and quieted the skeptics.

Free email — in exchange for targeted advertising

The ad industry, Graham maintains, both increased the public's bounds of acceptance over time and fattened up company-sourced data profiles obtained by the NSA.

When asked specifically how personal and private information collection has seeped quietly into public tolerance, Graham explained the evolution of successful client service in digital advertising relied on keyword matching, to find out an individual's likes, interests and dislikes.

Things went to the next level, he said:

(...) with the advent of the Gmail free email service. Free accounts were given to anyone who requested one in exchange for Google being allowed to monitor the content of your correspondences in order to then place relevant advertising into the mail interface.

Reaction initially from the public was extremely negative over the disclosure. I was one of those people who personally supported Google's activities and I did so based on a simple premise: it's a free service and you don't have to use it.

In addition to that, I perceived that Google's business model was predicated on consumers being comfortable with the way Google uses the data. This was a strong incentive for appropriate self-regulation by the company.

However, the idea of someone "going through your mail" was about as un-American as you can get.

Graham explained that the challenge then became to guide consumers through overcoming their hesitations about having their private mail and messages read by companies such as Google; to make them feel safe. "For people to become truly comfortable with it," he said, "there was going to need to be a way to educate them on the way the data was actually gathered and reviewed."

A newer example of the quest to fatten up user data profiles with keyword targeting — blurring the lines of both consent and anonymization via the implied situational consent of the user's presence — can be seen in the new #hashtag implementation at Facebook.

Advertising as less intrusive surveillance

On Wednesday, Facebook announced it would add #hashtag functionality, similar to Twitter's use of the term-search mechanism.

But the reasoning behind the new feature is far more than enhancing polite conversation. In Facebook Hashtags Have More To Do With Ad Targeting Than Twitter, Buzzfeed's Matthey Linley explained, "On the surface, hashtags will help Facebook users engage in 'public conversations' ... More importantly, hashtags are a less intrusive way for advertisers to use Facebook’s platform."

Less intrusive data collection, indeed. As this relates to the NSA'a PRISM program and data collection — "lawful interception" — from companies like Google and Facebook, Graham told ZDNet,

I think it is also very important to understand how this IS a violation of everyone's constitutional rights.

The only maintained defense that these activities are not an unlawful search and seizure and a violation of privacy of every citizen of the United States is that the "data" is not being actively reviewed and therefore no one's ‘privacy’ being violated. Also that it is being gathered through a lawful process in using the courts.

Except, he said, "The problem is that the courts and the process are secret. And that means it is being done outside of the democratic process. Something this important should be reviewed by the citizens and decided by law and open judicial review. As of now it is being decided by bureaucrats using executive policy as a guide. That has to stop."

In what Steve Hall (Adrants) described as a "a crisis of consciousness" moment, Graham told colleagues across the spectrum of advertising that they all should have known better, saying,

For years we as digital marketers have created systems that gathered vast personal data while telling consumers that they should have no fear of such activities. We told them that despite the fact that we were in essence watching everything that they did and making calculated choices to manipulate their decisions based on that knowledge, that this was ultimately a benefit to them and that they were still remaining anonymous and therefore their privacy was not at risk.

And we said this even though the slightest application of historical perspective would have clearly shown the slippery slope to its inevitable complete loss.

Graham still believes that their industry has made the Internet a better place for everyone, but that buttering up the public to the trade-offs for using Internet services puts the industry in a dangerously close space to the NSA's activities.

Mr. Graham told ZDNet,

I and most of the people involved in my industry have believed that our process of monitoring, anonymizing, archiving and Robo-reviewing people's activities have produced a better overall experience for the consumer and the marketer. I still believe that today.

But throughout that process, we've had to continually defend what we were doing against concerns about privacy from organizations that are set to defend against any perceived infringement on it.

And my current assertion is that our continued efforts to explain how this process of data gathering and storage can be achieved without violating privacy has had the unintended effect of creating an environment where the public has been repeatedly assured by resources outside of the government that the gathering of data on personal actions and activities can be done while still maintaining a person's privacy.

We convinced the public it was safe, and that self-regulation and not legislation was the answer. The NSA and the current administration is making the same argument now.

When asked if the advertising and marketing industry could make a course correction, Skip Graham was optimistic, but did not mince words. He said,

I think first the industry will have to accept the fact that a strong distinction is to be made between what we do and what the government is attempting to do.

That's a distinction that most in my space will not want to make because they don’t want to draw a correlation between the two at all in the first place. We have spent years trying to get the public to accept that we mean them no harm and that in fact our activities create a benefit.

The last thing anyone wants to do is find ourselves directly associated with what is quite conceivably the greatest threat to our freedoms to occur in my lifetime.

I think it is the responsibility for industries and organizations that gather data on individuals to make a clear distinction between what we do and what the government is doing. And that's what I'm doing now.

The dark shadow of modern tech is its data-grabbing arms race: so-called "people finder" data registries, the advertising and marketing industry, spammers, corporations (such as Google and Facebook) and the U.S. government, all comprising a frenzy to collect as much private and personal information on as many people as possible — up to, and sometimes exceeding, the limit of the law.

While it's a nice idea to tell people they can't complain about anything they get for free, and that consumers can simply choose not to use email, Facebook, or internet search if they don't like agreeing to have their information monitored, stored and potentially used against them...

That argument is rendered null by both the everyday realities of life and the NSA's secret courts; there is no plainer way to illustrate that even the hippest, wisest, most cautious consumers truly have no idea what they are consenting to when using Apple, Skype, Facebook or Google.

And there are more than enough players that will take advantage of it all.

Image: EFF via Wikicommons.

Editorial standards