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Follow the Filter Bubble

Personalization gets physical – and temperamental


/ June 29th, 2011 /

In the market of personalization, data is currency.

Companies like Google and Acxiom track your clicks, purchases and likes, converting them into a personal profile they can then sell to targeted advertisers.

Up until now that profile has been fairly static. What online advertisers know about you – your location, gender, purchasing preferences, favorite news sources – doesn’t change much from day to day, let alone from hour to hour. Your profile is also largely based on (semi-)conscious choices – what you click on, like, etc. – and advertisers can only infer so much about your physical and emotional state.

But that may all change in the next year or two, according to Tim Ferris, one of a growing number of “Self-quantifiers.”

Like other entrepreneurs profiled in the Financial Times this month, Ferris uses gadgets and automated spreadsheets that can track our bodies’ biorhythms, including REM cycles, calorie intake, heart beat, blood pressure, glucose levels and even vitamin deficiencies (just plunk a tracking device in your toilet bowl). Those data streams can then be combined to infer how stressed you are, when you’re drowsy and, increasingly, what mood you’re in.  It’s not about navel-gazing, though. Self-quantifiers hope to use the bio-feedback to manage attention spans at work, stress throughout the day, diet, and sleep habits. Their bio-signal patterns can also serve as red flags for oncoming illnesses.

Self-quantifying services could end up using fee-based revenue models, but more likely they’ll go the way of the cloud – offering free-ish services and making up their profits from selling data to advertisers. At least, that’s what Ferris predicts.

“I think, as soon as the next 12 or 24 months, that people will have to opt out of self-tracking, as opposed to opt in,” he says, “much like GPS and geo tagging,” a feature of smartphones that records users’ geographic location automatically for use in various consumer mobile applications.

And privacy advocates agree:

Imagining three years worth of heart rate data or depression symptoms travelling through mobile devices – potentially being offered for sale to drug or insurance companies, exploited by advertisers or hacked by cyber criminals – puts watchdog groups on alert. “What consumers need to realise is there’s a huge, huge demand for information about their activities, and the protections for the information about their activities are far, far, far less than what they think,” says Lee Tien, a privacy attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A lot of these cloud services fall outside the federal and state privacy regimes.”

But being exploited by big pharma might not be the worst of it (assuming drug companies are trying to cure the conditions they believe you to have). Imagine if advertisers could sense when you’re hungry, angry, depressed or randy. Will they want to push products that mitigate your mood – or aggravate it? Craving carbs? Time to order in from Cinnabon. Pissed off? There’s a sale on glocks in the next county. Feeling blue? We have just the perfect pint of Ben & Jerry’s / guide to assisted suicide for you. Got an itch? Okay, you get the picture.


 


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