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David Lazarus: Using TiVo? Your personal choices may be going straight to advertisers

Tom Rogers, CEO of TiVo, attends the opening bell at the Nasdaq stock market in New York on July 25, 2007. TiVo’s number-crunching subsidiary this week announced a partnership with media heavyweight Viacom that helps advertisers target TV viewers with specific commercials.
Tom Rogers, CEO of TiVo, attends the opening bell at the Nasdaq stock market in New York on July 25, 2007. TiVo’s number-crunching subsidiary this week announced a partnership with media heavyweight Viacom that helps advertisers target TV viewers with specific commercials. Associated Press file

If you’re a TiVo user, your digital video recorder may be ratting you out to advertisers.

In the latest example of consumer privacy being threatened by Big Data, TiVo’s number-crunching subsidiary has announced a partnership with media heavyweight Viacom that helps advertisers target TV viewers with specific commercials.

Think of it like this: A car company wants to reach men in their 20s. Viacom knows that younger guys like watching the spy cartoon “Archer” on Comedy Central. TiVo will now be able to say whether the commercial actually was seen by target viewers – and if any of them went on to buy the car.

“The Holy Grail of TV advertising has been to figure out who’s watching and match it with their behavior,” said James Dempsey, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Law & Technology. “This seems to do that.”

TiVo and Viacom say they’re going beyond past industry efforts to improve the effectiveness of commercials. Apparently, they’ll match their data with other publicly available information to create a detailed picture for advertisers about which viewers are most open to a pitch and how those people respond.

“This is something that hasn’t been seen before in the consumer space,” said Neil Richards, a law professor who specializes in privacy issues at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The potential for abuse is enormous,” he said. “Imagine this being used to influence the political process, with propaganda being targeted at specific voters.”

TiVo said insights from its “second-by-second tune-in data” for more than 2 million homes will be applied to Viacom’s “3.4 billion television subscribers worldwide.” The partnership, it said, “will unlock new capabilities for marketing and advertising partners.”

Along with Comedy Central, Viacom’s pay-TV offerings include MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike and BET.

Richards and other experts said TiVo’s and Viacom’s example almost certainly will be followed by other DVR providers and media companies.

What should consumers make of this? My feeling is that the more gibberish companies employ to announce their intentions, the more people should worry.

“This integration will make Viacom the first network to offer advertisers true single-source solutions for audience targeting and measurement,” declared Frank Foster, senior vice president and general manager of TiVo Research and Analytics, the company’s data-mining unit.

“The combination of Viacom’s advanced predictive engine and TiVo’s anonymized, granular set-top box data, matched directly to purchase and consumer engagement data in a privacy-protected manner, allows advertisers to see much more than (just) if their campaign was viewed,” he said.

There are soothing words in there such as “privacy-protected” and “anonymized,” suggesting that people’s personal information will remain under wraps.

But it won’t, not if the goal is “audience targeting and measurement.”

Rebecca Herold, an Iowa privacy consultant, said the whole idea of targeted marketing undermines claims that people’s personal data will be “anonymized,” or stripped of information that could identify individual viewers.

“If data is going to be used to determine the shows households have viewed, and then send targeted marketing to those households, then the data obviously was not anonymized, was it?” she said. “If it was, then targeted marketing could not be accomplished. How would they know who to send the targeted marketing to?”

I tried to put that question to TiVo and Viacom. Both companies declined to comment beyond their news release announcing the deal.

The release quoted TiVo’s Foster as saying that “this partnership will not only enable advertisers to see how effectively a campaign reached the target audience, but it will shed light on whether the campaign enticed consumers to take action such as going to a store or buying a product.”

Is this arrangement fair to TiVo users? They apparently have no choice except to cancel their service. TiVo’s privacy policy states that the company “may work with third-party advertising companies that collect and use information to deliver more relevant advertising.”

Jeff Sovern, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law in New York, called this an “unfortunate” way of getting subscribers to agree to having their personal information exploited for marketing purposes.

“Unless TiVo actually makes an additional effort to tell its customers what it is doing, probably many will think that information about their viewing choices is not being given to others, when it is,” he said.

No one should be surprised that consumer data is being put to such sophisticated use. Data mining has evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry, focused on employing vast amounts of people’s personal information to manipulate their behavior.

In many cases, there is a trade-off involved. For example, Google gives away its online services for free, but in return it leverages users’ data for marketing purposes.

In TiVo’s and Viacom’s case, consumers are paying for the companies’ services, yet are still forfeiting a measure of their privacy.

“TiVo has highly detailed and very personal data about particular viewers’ viewing habits,” said Dorothy Glancy, a professor at Santa Clara Law. “I would not want a company to transfer information about what I watch and when I watch it.”

Nor, I suspect, would anyone else.

David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist. He answers consumer questions. Contact him: david.lazarus@latimes.com or @Davidlaz. Read more by Lazarus at fblinks.com/laz.

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