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Look, there's no polite way to come out and ask customers how much cash they've got. If a smelly shirtless dude starts wandering around the lot of a Mercedes dealership, all they can do is give him the stink eye until he finally leaves. But surely modern technology has given businesses a way around this archaic social convention, right?
Yep! Orbitz (the travel agency website that doesn't employ a swollen old starship captain as its spokesman) has begun using software that determines what type of computer a customer is using to browse its website, and is delivering ads to each customer based on how much that particular computer costs.
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"For the last time, I don't want to visit Detroit!"
It started out with Orbitz simply tracking whether customers were using a Mac or a PC, at which point they noticed that Mac users tend to spend more money on hotels than their PC counterparts. Generally speaking, Macs are more expensive, which would suggest that their owners have more to spend (assuming they didn't just vaporize all their extra money buying the Mac in question).
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"I'm able to save money on food by being full of myself."
As it happens, Mac users do have more money, earning an annual income approximately 30 percent higher than PC users, and are predominantly single males, a demographic much more likely to spend a few extra dollars on a nice hotel room to attend their bitterly lonely technology convention. Following that line of reasoning, Orbitz now has it set up so that anyone using a Mac to book a vacation on its site will be treated to ads for more expensive hotels.
So in the future, if you're viewing a website from a $2,000 MacBook Pro, you might start seeing ads for jewelers, luxury sedans, and HBO subscriptions, whereas if you're checking CareerConnection from the dusty old Gateway desktop in the public library, you're probably going to see pop-ups for Hamburger Helper and a pawn shop.
"They make Bologna Helper?"
You've probably noticed that if you go to Amazon and search for, say, hair dryers, for days after, every site you go to will be carrying hair dryer ads. If you've never noticed it, or just thought it was coincidence, go try it. It's actually kind of creepy. In fact, at this very moment, you're likely being monitored by over 100 companies, all for the explicit purpose of trying to decide what ads to show you -- that's just a part of everyday life on the Internet at this point. But if you want a preview of what the world will look like when companies start taking it too far, here you go:
Epic, a New York-based marketing firm, was recently caught using ads spread out over approximately 24,000 websites to spy on people's browser history and collect information about potential health problems to more efficiently target their advertisements. As in, if you searched "ruptured anus cures," they would follow you around the Web pelting you with ads for anal sealants. This, despite the fact that under normal circumstances medical records and other health-related information is supposed to be confidential.
"This information was supposed to be between me, my doctor, and my hooker."
And these weren't "Amazing Car Insurance Loophole!" pop-ups on some distant corner of the Internet, either -- Epic sponsored ads on CNN.com, Amazon, Orbitz, and numerous other high-profile sites, and their ads would track visitors after they left to see what (if any) medically related searches they conducted. Epic then stored all this information in a database, organized in categories such as "diabetes" and "incontinence," so that they could target users with advertisements related to their specific medical conditions (although those two keywords would result in the most frighteningly majestic commercial Wilford Brimley has ever appeared in).
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You may recognize this as being fantastically illegal, and so did the Federal Trade Commission, who sued Epic and forced them to destroy all the information they'd harvested. By then, Epic was tracking millions of Internet users and attempting to enhance their browsing experience by peppering them with personalized ads helpfully reminding them -- and anyone else who used the computer -- of their debilitating ailments. It could eventually get to the point where the only way to shop privately is to actually drive out to the freaking mall, because you can go into f.y.e. and buy the Rambo collection with absolutely no chance of the clerk following you around for three hours waving Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot in your face.
"This copy has her deleted shower scene."
But the implications are so much bigger than even that -- with enough access to your social media, Google searches, and browsing habits, and a smart enough algorithm behind it, a company could know things about you that you don't even know yourself. They see you starting a diet and immediately know from prior behavior that you'll be back shopping for fat pants six months later. So the future of The Terminator came true, only instead of Skynet murderbots chasing us through the ruins and firing rail guns at us, it's a series of databases stealthily calculating when to ambush us with Mountain Dew ads. It could have been worse, we guess.
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For more reasons to be alarmed by some companies, check out 6 Secret Monopolies You Didn't Know Run the World and 6 Companies That Rigged The Game (And Changed the World).
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