How Targeted Ads Spoil
Valentine’s Day Surprises

How Targeted Ads Spoil Valentine’s Day Surprises
By David Vronay

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and love is in the air.  Will there be a surprise dinner, or perhaps something sparkling in a little blue box?  Unfortunately for some would be cupids this year big data is ruining their surprises, as targeted ads pop up revealing to their sweetheart what they shopped for online.


Tracking users’ online searches and browsing history is not a new concept.  Sites like eBay, Yahoo and Facebook are tracking every move their users make. That data and information is then sold to the highest bidder to be used in targeted advertisements. So, when a shopper searches for flowers on Google, Google lets the advertisers know that the person is interested in buying flowers.  All of the sudden, the user’s Internet browser and social networks are flooded with banners and ads for 12-stem roses and lilies ready for overnight delivery with a box of chocolates.

Advocates for privacy have always warned targeting behavior and the risks associated with it, but consumers have been slow to react. So why is this becoming a hot topic now?  Several trends in the market are coming together that may change consumer’s perceptions.

First and foremost, more shopping occurs online than ever before.  Even if customers are visiting stores, they all have their mobile devices with them, which they use to compare prices across many retailers.  This is a gold mine for data recorders, who find out what they are shopping for as well as where.

Big data and the networks around it have made significant strides as well.  Google, Facebook and other ad network’s capabilities have become near real-time.   This means that every piece of data is now instantly available across all networks.  Sometimes, online behavior is being reflected back to users so fast that it leaves no doubt of the connection in users’ minds.

Another important factor is the relentless push by networks to use “social login” – signing into sites with your Twitter, Facebook or Google ID.  These companies claim it is a mechanism for convenience, but the overall goal is to give networks easier, more efficient means to gather information about what you are doing online.

Lastly, families are embracing more and more technology and shared devices.  Using an iPad late at night from bed with an Amazon login, necessary to get Prime benefits, results in ads being leaked to the family desktop that morning.

Is there anything that consumers can do?  Unfortunately, there isn’t much.  Most browsers allow users to browse in private mode, and that can help cut down some of the tracking.  However, once signed in to the big sites, it is essentially all over.  There are no ways of saying, “This is a surprise gift; do not track me.”  Sites rarely give users information about what they collect at all, much less how they use it.

Is there hope?  The hope is that the relatively harmless issue of spoiled Valentine’s surprises will encourage everyone to pay more attention to the behavior of large tech companies that traffic in personal data.  Alternatives do exist, and users should start to explore them.  In reality, it is a social issue, not truly a technological one.  Next Valentine’s Day is our opportunity to give the big data miners a real heartbreak of their own.

Dave Vronay, CEO and founder of social exchange platform Heard, comes from 15 years of experience at Microsoft in the Social Computing Research group, healthcare, Windows and big data. Vronay founded Microsoft’s Asia Center for Interaction Design and the shared design studio at the Advanced Technology Center and co-founded the children’s software company ImaginEngine. Vronay worked on the seminal SK8 project and interactive QuickTime in the Apple Human Interface Group, honing his skills at companies both big and small before launching Heard under the umbrella company eweware.