Privacy & Security in Targeted Advertising

Internet advertising generated more than $22 billion in revenue in the United States in 2009, with around 47% coming from search advertising (ads adjacent to search engine results) and 35% from display (“banner”) advertising. In addition to providing great business value, the opportunity to target ads to users makes ads more valuable for consumers.

On the other hand, the explosion of targeted advertising is threatening user privacy online and also operating in a way that is largely invisible to end users, and neither controlled nor understood by them. The need to protect business value while enabling meaningful user control over data about their online behavior presents the main focus of this project.

We believe that it is possible to sustain the commercial value from targeted advertising while providing appropriate privacy and meaningful and manageable control to users. The broad goal of this project is to develop a technological and legal framework that can allow data to be collected and retained for targeted advertising, while providing users with control over the use of data and the ability to articulate preferences about data use vs. access to content and services.

We are interested in achieving impact by informing the public, policy makers, and the media about the economic value and privacy implications of targeted advertising. Making progress on our research agenda will require the combined efforts of many disciplines:

  • Computer Science and Economics.  The emerging discipline that studies problems at the intersection between computer science and economics, for example in regards to market design, computational mechanism design, and efficient preference elicitation, is relevant to these questions.
  • Business.  We will need to understand the forms of targeting and personalization that are most valuable for advertisers, the kinds of properties of data that are important to preserve in sustaining value, and seek methods to protect innovation in online services and personalization.
  • Law and Policy.  Legal scholarship in regards to property rights vs. contract law approaches to protect privacy, considering also the role of norms and other voluntary enforcement and the development of new legal instruments as necessary, will be essential in developing a comprehensive, workable solution to targeted advertising.