How Do You Know I Want to Buy a Bread Machine? — Privacy Concerns Raised by Online Advertising

Have you ever had this experience: when you search on your browser for how to bake a delicious slice of bread, your other platforms will push ads for bread machines to you. Have you ever had the impression that the ads you see online seem to know you better than you know yourself? Highly specific ads, or ads that follow users across websites, make it clear that marketers often know exactly who is receiving their digital messages (John et al., 2018).

In the digital age, every click and visit from a user is valuable to marketers. From tracking your browsing habits to algorithms predicting your preferences, online advertisement is a powerful engine of the digital economy. Every interaction people have on the Internet reveals something about them. Every day, countless internet users exchange their valuable personal information to facilitate tailored advertising and personalised content, often without realising how much they are being monitored. These days, highly personalised advertising has also caused Internet users to worry about privacy. This blog will start with online advertising and discuss users’ online privacy issues.

“With personalized ads, there’s a fine line between creepy and delightful.”

John et al., 2018

Online Advertising Brings Convenient Shopping Experience

The Internet is a remarkable engine of engagement in which we can access any kind of information, conduct business, and connect with others anywhere in the world at any time (Smith, 2014). As pointed out by Smith (2014), the development as well as the maintenance of the Internet is sustained by advertising. Everything we get from the Internet is free because advertisers are paying for it. Regardless of whether we believe that advertisers have earned our attention or hijacked it, it is the advertising dollars that allow us to access and consume content. Through their financial support of media outlets, advertisers draw our attention to their products.

The use of user data improves people’s responses to advertising. Unquestionably, all forms of online advertising are very different from previous forms of advertising (Smith, 2014). In the past, the majority of the advertisements we saw in newspapers, television, radio, etc. made us feel bored. Today’s marketers are accustomed to relying on algorithms to give users personalised online advertisements. Big data and algorithms enable platforms to deliver targeted advertisements to users. This implies that we frequently feel compelled to make a purchase after seeing ads on social platforms and shopping platforms. In addition to putting a lot of effort into making sure users are interested in the ads they see, advertisers also use user data to ensure that advertisements are targeted. We no longer need to spend time searching for the products we like because they will appear on our screen automatically.

Image1 : 1940s vintage ad (Etsy, 2019)

How Online Advertising Works

1. Data Collection

With the personal data users share online and website cookies that track every click, marketers have unprecedented insight into consumers (John et al., 2018). Cookies are small text files that are stored in a consumer’s website browser and are associated with a specific domain (ACCC, 2021). These cookies keep track of the pages users visit, the advertisements they click on, and the amount of time they stay on a particular page. Advertisers can collect data to learn more about users’ online behaviour.

2. AD Targeting

With the user’s data, algorithms come into play at this step. Advertisers use algorithms to ensure that the advertisements displayed to users are the ones most likely to draw their attention. Whether pushed through social media, search engines, news sites, or shopping platforms, the advertisements users see are created and distributed based on their online data.

3. Delivery and Interaction

When advertisements are displayed on users’ screens, advertisers often monitor user engagement, including clicks, viewing time, and other metrics, for the purpose of measuring the effectiveness of their advertisements and refining their strategies.

Online Advertising Raises Concerns About Data Security

In the digital age, the definition and boundaries of privacy rights continue to evolve. One of the most common issues about the Internet and digital media has been the concerns about the potential loss of personal privacy (Flew, 2021). At the heart of many privacy concerns is a loss of control. Consumers may not object to the use of their information in specific circumstances, but they are concerned about not being able to control who has access to and uses it (Leslie et al., 2018).

Image 2 : QQ Browser logo (Tencent, n.d.)

Tencent is one of the largest Internet companies in China. In 2016, its QQ browser was revealed to have serious privacy vulnerabilities in handling user personal data (Adam, 2016). According to reports, QQ Browser collects a large amount of user data, including but not limited to user website visit history, search history, and user location. Reports also reveal that the QQ Browser cannot safely protect user data and transmits it insecurely on the Internet (Jeffrey et al., 2016). Tencent uses this data for a variety of purposes, but mostly for content recommendations and personalised advertising. When marketers have less access to consumer data, advertising effectiveness declines (Leslie et al. 2018). The intrusiveness of advertising directly affects the privacy issues of online platform users (Laura, 2022).

Consumers increasingly feel they have nowhere to hide.

Norberg et al., 2007

Privacy management is an ongoing challenge for users when using the Internet and has become a hot topic for policymakers (Partricia et al., 2007; Choi et al., 2019). One of the three core elements of the big data revolution facilitated by social media is dataveillance. It refers to “the monitoring of citizens on the basis of their online data” and “entails the continuous tracking of (meta)data for unstated preset purposes” (Flew, 2021, as cited in van Dijck, 2014). Dataveillance has attracted the most scrutiny because it goes to the heart of privacy and security issues related to the way businesses, government agencies, academic researchers, and many others collect, use, and share personal data (Flew, 2021).

Terms of Service are Important But Few People Pay Attention to Them

Websites that provide useful data require users to register so as to access the information. Moreover, they usually require consumers to provide personal information to use online services (Partricia, Daniel, and David, 2007; Choi et al., 2018). It will be necessary for us to tick the box indicating our agreement to the platform’s Terms of Service if we wish to register for a new account. Legally, the Terms of Service are a contractual document, which is a simple transaction (Suzor, 2019). Only if you accept the terms can you access the platform. If you do not agree, you cannot continue. Advertisers and digital platforms use terms of service and privacy agreements to legally collect user data. The terms of service specify in detail how the platform collects, stores, and uses personal data. The majority of Internet users rarely browse the terms of service in detail. These documents are usually long and complex, making it difficult for users to understand their content, and necessitates a lot of effort on their part to manage their online personal information (Choi et al., 2018). Suzor (2019) pointed out that the terms of service allocate most of the rights to the operators, reserving “absolute discretion” for platform operators.

Use Algorithms to Optimize Experience

Flew (2021) highlighted that “The corollary of the growing significance of big data is the power associated with algorithms and algorithmic selection. Algorithms are the rules and processes established for activities such as calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning.” (p.82). Folk theories of algorithms mention that people always believe that algorithms limit their access to information, although some also hold the opinion that algorithms make them more efficient (Ytre-Arne & Moe, 2021). People’s different views on algorithms can bring us to another discussion about online privacy, that is, different groups of individuals have different views on online privacy.

Table1: Targeted Ads: Interesting or Intrusive?, (Felix, 2019)

Table 1 presents that in a 2019 poll of 3132 U.S. adults, 51% of Americans thought that targeted advertising uses personal data inappropriately. It is evident that different ages have different attitudes towards targeted advertising. The widespread consensus among the elderly is that targeted advertising violates their privacy and they are against it. Younger people are more open to targeted advertising, with 41% of them enjoying the convenience of targeted advertising. This demonstrates that some digital habits and views on privacy vary by age.

Table 2: Actions taken by adults in the United States toward data privacy as of May 2023, by level of knowledge (Pew Research Center, 2023)

Table 2 indicates that in a 2023 survey of 5101 U.S. adult Internet users, 83% of the most knowledgeable user group had changed their social media privacy settings. This figure is only 53% in the group of least knowledgeable users. The difference in numbers between the two groups demonstrates that knowledge of privacy translates into privacy actions, but also into suspicion and distrust. People who know more about online privacy are more inclined to take action to protect their data.

Table 3: Share of internet users who are willing to accept online privacy risks for convenience as of January 2023 (Gen Digital, 2023)

Table 3 shows the willingness of people in different countries to accept online privacy risks, based on a survey of 12025 adult Internet users from around the world. Of the respondents, 73% of Internet users from New Zealand stated that they accept some online privacy risks in exchange for convenience.

It is worth noting that there are countless Internet users in the world, and the above data chart has certain limitations owing to the limited number of respondents. Despite this, we can still find some patterns: people from different cultural backgrounds, different age groups, and different educational levels may have completely different views on online privacy.

The Privacy Paradox

The privacy paradox was first described by Laura et al. (2022) as the disconnect between consumers’ privacy concerns and privacy protection. For instance, consumers have concerns about privacy security when using social media, but the benefits of connecting with friends and family outweigh these concerns. From the survey results in Table 3 above, it can be seen that even though proportions vary from country to country, overall more than half of the respondents are open to online privacy. Firstly, it’s critical to clarify that they are not assuming that the Internet protects their privacy, but rather accepting the risks of online privacy in exchange for some convenience. Consumers are trading access to their data for free access to the platform (Laura et al., 2022). Our data is used to provide us with online conveniences, such as targeted advertisements that save us time searching.

Image 3 : Privacy (no source)


When exploring the intersection of online advertising and online privacy, we must recognise the double-edged nature of technology. First, advertisements that are more relevant to our preferences lead to more valuable as well as enjoyable Internet experiences (Leslie et al., 2018). But at the same time, the Internet subverts many of our everyday assumptions about privacy (Kiddell, 2019). When we used to stay at home and draw the curtains, no one would know what we did unless we told them. But our actions on the Internet are completely different. Everything we do on the Internet may be known to others. As the Internet advances, personalised advertising becomes increasingly accurate, but it also makes us more aware of the security issues of online privacy than ever before.

In order to cope with the rapidly evolving technological environment, regulations need to be constantly adapted and revised, which also calls on policymakers to remain neutral. Currently, the European Union has enacted strict regulations on online tracking, which stipulate that privacy infringement would result in criminal penalties (Smith, 2014). The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) also recommended that the industry should formulate and improve rules to protect user data security and prevent harm to users. Against the backdrop of Tencent’s QQ browser privacy leak, China also officially enacted the Cybersecurity Law in 2017, which strengthened the protection measures for personal information and important data.

Raising public awareness of privacy and security is also important, and public education can help increase people’s understanding of their rights in the digital environment. I hope that in the future, while people can enjoy the convenience of digitalization, they can also safeguard their privacy and other related rights. To achieve this, joint efforts are needed from technology developers, regulators, and the public themselves.

Reference List

Adam, S. (2016, March 28), Researchers identify major security and privacy issues in Popular China Browser Application, QQ, THECITIZENLAB.

Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) (2019), Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission

Choi, H. et al. (2018) The role of privacy fatigue in online privacy behavior, Computers in Human Behavior, 81, pp. 42–51.

Felix, R. (2019, May 23) Targeted Ads: Interesting or Intrusive? [Graph], Statista.

Flew, T. (2021) Regulating Platforms, Cambridge: Polity, pp. 72-79

Gen Digital. (2023, February 28) Share of internet users who are willing to accept online privacy risks for convenience as of January 2023, by country [Graph], Statista.

Jeffrey, K. et al. (2016, March 28), WUP! There It Is Privacy and Security Issues in QQ Browser, THECITIZENLAB.

John, L. K. et al. (2017) Ads that don’t overstep: How to make sure you don’t take personalization too far, Harvard business review, 95(4), pp. 62–69.

Kissell, J. (2019) Take Control of Your Online Privacy, 4th Edition.

Laura F.B. et al. (2022) Social Media Fatigue and Privacy: An Exploration of Antecedents to Consumers’ Concerns regarding the Security of Their Personal Information on Social Media Platforms, Journal of Interactive Advertising, 22(2), pp.125-140.

Norberg, P.A., et al. (2007) The Privacy Paradox: Personal Information Disclosure Intentions versus Behaviors, Journal of Consumer Affairs, 41(1), pp. 100–126.

Pew Research Center (2023, October 18) Actions taken by adults in the United States toward data privacy as of May 2023, by level of knowledge [Graph], Statista.

Smith, M. (2014) Targeted: how technology is revolutionizing advertising and the way companies reach consumers (1st ed.), American Management Association.

Suzor, N.P. (2019) Who Makes the Rules?. Lawless: the secret rules that govern our lives, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 10-24.

Ytre-Arne,B. & Moe, H. (2021) Folk theories of algorithms: Understanding digital irritation, Media, Culture & Society, 43(5), 807–824.

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