Channel 4 ‘data baby’ to expose modern ad tracking techniques

07/03/2013

Channel 4 has launched ‘Data Baby’, a new experiment that will monitor how an individual web user’s habits are tracked and used by online advertisers. The experiment will look at how technology such as Google’s DoubleClick has become more sophisticated, moving from traditional cookie tracking to location, frequency and device monitoring techniques.

Watch a Channel 4 video explaining the project below:

According to Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, Google now uses an estimated 57 signals to personalise each user's search results, including location, computer and how they search.

To test this theory, the broadcaster has created an imaginary trial subject ‘Rebecca Taylor’ (one of most common names for women her age).

Taylor is a fictional 27 year old, living in London, likes photography, travel, music, and uses all the popular social networks.

In reality, Rebecca is a laptop which Channel 4 News will control, guided by the personality type that has been mapped out.

Enlisted as the ‘Channel 4 News data baby’, Taylor will explore how everything from the news you read to the prices you pay, are a result of your online searches and clicks.

Then Channel 4 will track where her data is going - and who is using it for what.

Over the next month, the broadcaster will build up an online footprint for Rebecca, to make her as "real" an identity as possible.

Channel 4 said: “It is near impossible for average internet users to keep enough of a track of their browsing behaviour to really know what's going on behind the scenes. Especially because of the vast amount of information now available.”

The broadcaster cited a quote from Google's Eric Schmidt, saying "every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003".

Speaking to Channel 4 News "digital prophet" Jaron Lanier said: "Would your imaginary person see different news items, different search results, different prices, different recommendations for who to date, different music streams, than exactly the same person if some items were different but irrelevant to any of those items?"

In the long term, the way we search online and the data we hand over every time we log on could also contribute to the way we run our lives on a much deeper level, Lanier says.

"In five years or longer, this person's life would be affected by the data that's collected," he told Channel 4 News. "Some of the examples are: how much credit will cost, will this have any effect on employment prospects, education?

"Will political campaigns target you as a voter differently according to data that's been gathered?"

Periodically, the "Rebecca" laptop will go to a tech consultancy where Channel 4 will analyse what information it has sent and received, so the broadcaster can start building up a picture of where the data baby's information is going, who is processing it, and how that is affecting her online experience.

Eventually, Rebecca will "go mobile", to show how geo-location data feeds into her growing online life.

The project can be followed on Twitter via @datababyC4 or on Facebook.

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