Don’t find a hitman on Facebook or MySpace

When she next logs in to her social networking sites, there is a young mother from Philadelphia who will perhaps see that amongst the advertisements for baby powder, Pampers,  “29 secrets for a flat belly” and “secrets of low-cost car insurance in Philadelphia”, there just may be a few for Joe’s Gun Stop, with a special offer coupon for a Beretta 92FS nine millimetre or a used Walther PPK, together with one for “Uve, Gotten, Nochance Defence Attorneys, a professional law firm”.  Because I am sure that anyone who is silly enough to try and solicit someone to kill the father of her baby on Facebook doesn’t understand that this is public and that her travels across the interweb are tracked, not by the supposedly big evil governments of the world, but by companies trying to segment the market and serve more meaningful advertisements. 

When I walk into my local bar, the barman will not waste time in trying to sell me the new beer he’s just got because he knows that is not what I drink, but he will offer me a new cognac.  It’s the same when you have dinner party, you don’t serve nut cutlets when you know that your guests are dedicated to saving the planet by eating cows.  Similarly, if you are that type of company, you are not likely to start advertising your new line of whips, handcuffs and leather hoods in the “Bible Discussion and Study Meeting Chronicle” although you may take a chance on the “Catholic Times”.  Knowing your audience and market is not a bad thing because if a person constantly orders take-out pizza online, they may just be interested in a new pizza palace that’s opened half a mile away or an offer for gym membership if they care what the calories are doing to their stomachs. (cue “29 secrets for a flat belly”) This also helps prevent having half of the world’s dead trees stuffed through your mailbox in an attempt to sell you hearing aids and mobility scooters.

Although a few people will know about companies called ‘Behavioural Market vendors’ and how they maintain data on millions of people collected from numerous sources, from public records through to internet use, the majority will not care.  And the majority of people will not care that every time they use the internet or click on a website, they are leaving a trail of where they went and what they looked at.  But they will start shouting about the lack of privacy on Facebook or Myspace and condemn the evil corporations whilst at the same time letting third market companies such as the profitable and very low profile BlueKai or Acxiom collect even more information about them and refine their databases.  Acxiom alone has about 1500 pieces of information on nearly everyone in its database, including 96% of all Americans.  The datasets are available to anyone to buy and use for their next marketing campaign, allowing them to select their target audience more accurately.  Add in the fact that the electronic address of your computer is tied to a locality and hey, 200 potential BDSM club members who are young and fit because they belong to the local gym and don’t order pizza.

This brings me back to our miscreant mother from Philadelphia.  She must have been pretty silly to think that she could solicit a murderer on Facebook and get away with it.  Not because we all know someone who knows someone or that there are just those mean-spirited people who trawl Facebook for pictures of their children’s’ teachers enjoying themselves, but because just somewhere a marketing database will be adding ‘potential gun purchaser’ to her profile and now, as well as all those advertisements for baby products, ‘Chucks Carnage Contractors’ will be sending her the resumes of Stiletto Stalone and Machine-gun Murphy.  Talk about a full inbox. 

I do wonder, however, why there are so many behavioural specialists and profilers in law enforcement.  Because assuming you can get the purchase requisition through the buying department in the first place, I am sure that some company somewhere could provide you with a list of “Male, University educated Saudi Arabians born in 1957 who live in Pakistan and have purchased pizza, pornography, a subscription to the Nuclear Power newsletter, nitroglycerine and timers”.  It also works for selecting politicians:  Instead of a Criminal Records Check, you could automatically rule out “Austrian Catholic-educated ex-choirboys interested in amateur painting” as your next potential head of state because you just happen not to want to merge your country and don’t want to invite the Americans, British and Russians to the capital for the next 40 odd years.  Just imagine how far this could go:  Want to market specialist laundry services to Californian born and Washington-based college interns working in the Whitehouse with an interest in cigar humidors perhaps? 

We leave electronic fingerprints behind us every time we surf the interwebs.  Try it.  Clear out your internet browser, do a search and then see how many ‘cookies’ are left behind.  One researcher did that and found that looking up the word “Depression” on a dictionary site left behind 223 pieces of code that enabled drug companies to advertise anti-depressants.  It has happened to me:  Some friends wanted to load some maps of the area around my home in France to their GPS and the next day the ads on one of the American newspapers I read was for a  ‘Automobile Récepteur GPS’ together with a list of ‘marchands avec Offre exceptionnelle’.  Absolutely fantastic, but not really what I wanted as my friends had already left and had used a paper map instead.

So the next time you need a hitman, don’t place an advertisement on Facebook, or Myspace or ‘look at me being silly pages’.  You wouldn’t dream of placing a notice in the paper saying “Murderer wanted for Hire, apply to Apt 16 Rue De Joyeux Morte, Saint Armand. tele” with your full name.  Because you know that you are likely to get a visit from some very nice policeman with a very big gun and some handcuffs.  The same is true on your social networking site, because even if the prying neighbour missed it when she was distracted with the pictures of that first grade teacher drinking a glass of wine, you can bet your last coin on the fact that companies like BlueKai or Acxiom will see it and flood you with suitable advertisements.  And you will scream and twitter about Facebook, or Myspace or ‘look at me being silly pages’ selling your data when really it was your fault for forgetting to clear your browser’s history in the first place and the real people collecting all that data on you is a marketing company, not the Government or the very nice guys who run social networking sites.

There is a famous quote by Albert Einstein:  “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.”  I think I would want to modify that slightly: “Three things are infinite: the universe, marketing opportunities and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.”


About cryptothinker

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