At their much-hyped 2017 Developer Conference, Mark Zuckerburg revealed that the tech giant is working on ground-breaking Artificial Intelligence technology aimed at dismantling the physical barrier between thought and technology.1

In what sounds like a scene from a science fiction novel, 60 engineers are working day and night in the facility dubbed “Building 8” – Facebook’s secret research lab.

They’re working on a “brain computer speech-to-text interface”. Users will wear sensors which measure brain activity hundreds of times per second, to decode the signals associated with language. The fact that it hasn’t been done before doesn’t faze them in the slightest. “No such technology exists. We’ll need to develop one.” said Regina Dugan, the VP of Engineering who heads up Building 8.

“I believe AI is as big a revolution as the internet itself”

So declared L’Oreal’s Chief Digital Officer Lubomira Rochet as she launched an AI-powered Facebook Messenger Bot in Canad, to provide services and gather consumer insights. Their first AI service will be a “Gifting Bot” to help consumers find the right beauty gift, with the right product mix, at the right budget.

Whilst Facebook and l’Oreal are at the coalface of cutting edge A.I. tech, on a day-to-day basis our search history is already generating rich learnings for advertisers in a bid to influence our behavior.

For instance when you click on a web link, bidders powered by A.I. algorithms start to circle. Within the fraction of a second it takes to load the page, one of them snaps up some vacant ad space to display their message, which might then follow you around the web for days.

In order for A.I. to “learn”, it has to collect and analyze as much data, in order to serve more accurate recommendations and suggestions. But in order for this data to be collected and A.I. to function, messages have to be unencrypted. Which can be a problem.

This is because encryption is generally agreed to be the best way to defend personal data and conversations from malign hackers. But in order to launch their A.I. bot and stay competitive in the fiercely competitive retail world, L’Oreal made the calculation to disable their encryption. Time will only tell if this gamble will pay off and their project will remain secure.

Smart Retailing or Unfair Practices?

Data collected about your browsing history isn’t just used for targeted ads. This information can also affect what you’re being offered, for example the price you see for a particular product might be lower (or higher)… or you may be shown a range of products in a particular price bracket.

In fact in 2012, travel website Orbitz was discovered to be showing Mac users pricier hotel options than PC users.2 And later the same year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Staples’ website was tracking visitor’s locations and only applying price discounts if there was a competitor store within 20 miles of them.3

Is this ingenious retailing or an unfair use of personal data?

Are You Being Watched Right Now?

Our day-to-day web activity offers advertisers various ways of tracking what you’re up to. Cookies, the tiny pieces of data saved on your device, enable sites to store info which can enhance the user experience – useful data such as basket contents, passwords, and credit card numbers. “Authentication cookies” are used by web servers to check whether sensitive information can be displayed.

These scraps of data are stored on a single device to provide information to a particular site. However, advertisers are starting to mine this data and share it. In a complex process called “cookie syncing”, advertisers link user IDs to compare notes and build a better profile of you, and this is done entirely without your input.

“Supercookies” bypass the existing system altogether because they aren’t saved in your browser, so can’t be deleted when you clear your browser data. Instead, an ISP inserts a tiny piece of information that’s unique to your connection into the http header.

Because this information is injected between your device and the server that it’s connecting to, there’s nothing that users can do about it. It can’t be deleted, because it’s not stored on the device. And as it isn’t tied to a single website, and can be revealed to any website, it can potentially reveal a huge amount of info on a user.

The Erosion of Trust

The flood of developments which are enabling advertisers to collect and utilise data, often without users’ permission, is taking its toll on the confidence of the consumer. Trust in the Internet continues to be threatened by concerns about privacy and security issues.

55% of internet users across the world were more concerned about their online privacy than they were a year ago, according to the 2017 CIGI-Ipsos Global Study on Internet Security and Trust.

There is an increasingly fine line between advertisers creating ever more subtle and personalised data-led experiences, and customers feeling that they are being manipulated into behaving or reacting in a certain way.

Individual identity is a complicated, ever-changing entity and whilst A.I. and other data approaches are revolutionising the communication interfaces and moving away from a one-size-fits-all mentality, it’s imperative that this is a considered approach.

Bryony Graham


Further Reading