Despite California privacy law, marketers are still scheming to snatch your data

Marketers have responded to a landmark California privacy law by trying to water it down and planning more sophisticated ways of collecting people's personal information. (Zap Art / Getty Images)

If anyone should be capable of communicating in plain English, you’d think it would be the Assn. of National Advertisers, an organization of nearly 2,000 companies, representing 25,000 brands, that touts itself as “the voice of the marketer.”

I got my hands on a recent report from the association’s data, marketing and analytics division titled “Know Your Audience: The Evolution of Identity in a Consumer-Centric Marketplace.”

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One takeaway is that when marketers don’t think consumers are looking, they eagerly discuss new ways to violate people’s privacy.

Another is that when they talk among themselves, marketers speak in total gibberish.

For example, “identity solutions,” which the association says all marketers should be seeking in the digital age.

Identity solutions are “the coordinated activation of platforms, data and supporting services (both provided by third parties and sourced from among marketers’ in-house resources) that support persistent recognition of audience members across devices and other promotional and transactional touchpoints.”

I had to read that sentence multiple times before I figured out what the marketers are saying is they need to amass buckets of information about consumers from every possible source and use it to sell people stuff everywhere they go, online and off.

This isn’t a frivolous issue. The Assn. of National Advertisers has emerged as a key player in efforts to water down a tough California privacy law, AB 375, set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

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Among other things, the law gives consumers the right to know what information businesses are collecting about them and why they’re collecting it.

“Marketers see the California privacy law as a cancer that has to be contained,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. “The industry is freaked out about California.”

The report from the Assn. of National Advertisers, he told me, is a helpful reminder that data-minded companies have an agenda, and it doesn’t include helping consumers keep their personal information under wraps.

“When they speak in front of Congress, they talk about respecting people’s privacy,” Chester said. “When they speak among themselves, they talk about how they’re dedicated to completely undermining our privacy.”

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of much of what the marketing association’s report had to say. So I asked Chester to translate.

Marketers: “Until recently, channel-oriented approaches to data management have inhibited marketers’ ability to gain a holistic view of their own audience.”

Chester: “We couldn’t do it before, but now we can bring together all the data flowing from all your devices. By merging your online and offline information, we’ve created a super profile that we can use to track and target you.”

Marketers: “Emerging identity solutions offer the potential to solve for disconnected approaches to audience recognition, leveraging a unified process flow.”

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Chester: “We are perfecting more powerful ways to gather, analyze and instantly use your information for marketing purposes.”

Marketers: “Within resolution, linking approaches are differentiated principally by their reliance on deterministic, probabilistic or hybrid methodologies.”

Chester: “We have developed several ways to identify you no matter what device you use. We’ve come up with ways to match all your data, using powerful computers to scan tens of millions of records, that enable us to know it’s the same person on that phone and PC.”

The report expresses particular concern about “walled gardens” such as Facebook, which collect and hoard reams of information about users and prefer not to share all their toys with the other boys and girls.

The answer, the report says, is for marketers to create “ID consortiums” that “pool insights from multiple marketers and media providers.”

Think about that.

Thousands of businesses collaborating to create huge troves of files about the personal habits of millions of customers. And then sharing all that information among themselves.

The report also notes that privacy regulations such as the California law present “a moving target” for marketers, requiring “new requirements for data governance and accountability.”

Greater accountability! No!

The association’s chief executive, Bob Liodice, said in a statement that marketers are facing “costly challenges that affect their brands’ ability to engage with their audiences in relevant, respectful, consistent, personalized and meaningful ways.”

“This report clearly shows that marketers are seeking tangible strategies for identifying and engaging customer audiences in ways that are responsible, personalized and optimized to meet both consumer needs and business objectives.”

What it clearly shows is that when they think nobody’s paying attention, marketers are plotting new ways to subvert privacy rules and expand their considerable exploitation of consumer data.

An association spokesman declined to elaborate on Liodice’s statement.

Earlier this month, the Assn. of National Marketers was among dozens of corporate signatories of a letter to state Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) seeking substantial changes to the “hastily passed” privacy law.

If adopted by lawmakers, the industry’s changes would make it easier for them to collect and harness data, while making businesses less accountable for their actions.

The marketing association’s report laments “regulatory changes and consumer scrutiny of data collection, management and use practices, which in some cases serve to inhibit more rapid innovation in data-driven marketing.”

Don’t you just hate it when consumers take an interest in how their personal information is used?

Along with the right to know what information businesses hold, California’s privacy law allows consumers to ask that their information be deleted, and to opt out of having it sold to others.

These are reasonable protections that should be embraced by honest marketers.

In other words, a holistic and unified process flow, employing deterministic, probabilistic and hybrid methodologies, should not come at the expense of audience resentment at various transactional touchpoints.

You’re welcome.

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