Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s classic novel The Space Merchants posited a future where it was impossible to escape advertising, with marketing messages beamed directly onto our retinas. But they didn’t foresee how big data could be used, or misused, in the real world. Or how lethal the whole system could become.
Your mobile phone carries a great deal of information about you, including your browsing and internet purchasing history which, if accessed by marketers, can be used to build up a profile of the type of person you are: male, female, new parent, teenager, Ford driver, etc.
Each phone has a unique ID that marketers can use to gather this information. As well as this ID, if you’ve ever permitted an app to know your location then the marketers can also see where you are at any particular time and send ads that will show up while you browse Facebook, for example when you’re enjoying a drink at a café or bar, to tell you a shop is nearby that sells stuff you are interested in. This is called geo-fencing, where your phone’s location triggers an ad to be sent your way. It all sounds slightly creepy.
But it became even creepier when an anti-abortion group in America contracted a marketer to geo-fence abortion clinics. As a result, phone owners who had been profiled as female and young, based on their browsing history, and who were present (with their phone) at the clinics were sent anti-abortion/ pro-choice adverts. This is not an invasion of privacy because the marketer didn’t know who they were, but browsing histories create uncannily accurate virtual profiles.
Of course this is a fairly unsubtle use of what could be an infinitely more delicate and insidious tool. In Horizon, governments waged ‘information wars’ to sway public opinion and leave countries ripe for takeover without a shot being fired. Misinformation is already becoming a problem on the internet and it is only going to get worse.
This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1