The World Wide Web seems to be making the world less wide. Everyone is connected to everyone and everything else, and that is changing the way many things are done, particularly advertising and marketing. The past decade or so has seen a radical evolution in the way marketers define and reach their target markets. Gone are the days when the Sunday insert sufficed for advertisers looking to pinpoint potential customers. These days, advertisers want to know exactly who their customers are, what they want, and now, thanks to mobile technology, where they are.
How did we get here? For centuries, advertisers communicated with potential customers through print media. Even before the advent of truly mass electronic media, magazines and newspapers provided advertisers the ability to "target" customers or groups of customers likely to be interested in a particular product or service by virtue of niche sections or issues. In fact, one reason newspapers have sections is to accommodate advertisers wishing to communicate more directly with, say, those especially interested in sports or automobiles. Similarly, since many magazines devoted coverage to singular interests; advertisers could be confident that people who bought magazines about fishing, for example, would also buy rods and reels. In the 21st century, however, print media is giving way to electronic communication, not just for the obvious reasons of ease and speed, but also because the combination of technology and the Internet have provided many new ways for advertisers to locate their customers more precisely.
In the last week there has been a spate of publicity focused on the recent discovery that Apple's iPhone routinely collects and preserves location data via its GPS feature. Although at first it was thought that this information was transmitted only to the cellular carriers (who operate under very strict privacy laws, such that the information can only be accessed by court order), the Wall Street Journal recently reported that both the iPhone and Android-based phones not only collect the data but transmit it on a regular basis—up to several times an hour—to Apple and to Google respectively.
Perhaps all of this doesn't bother you. Maybe you don't have a smartphone or maybe you have disabled its tracking feature. Maybe you think, aside from the philosophically scary aspects of data collection, that you don't give a damn who knows where you've been. The revelation was nonetheless enough to prompt Senator Al Franken, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, to write a strongly worded letter to Apple's Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs, asking the Silicon Valley superstar exactly why Apple is collecting the information. The Senator also pointed out that, "The existence of this information—stored in an unencrypted format—raises serious privacy concerns… anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user's home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend, and the trips he has taken—over the past months or even a year."
[Update: After this article was published, Sony announced that it would offer identity theft protection services to PlayStation Network and Qriocity account holders in the United States, and was making similar arrangements for its customers in other countries and territories.]