Be afraid, very afraid.
It's like something out of Kentucky Fried Movie, where the actors on the screen can see what you're doing with your significant other during the showing. Digital cable and satellite television companies know what you're watching on TV at any given second, and starting this fall they will test software that will target ads to individuals based on their key demographics, including income, age, gender and ethnic origin.
For instance, households in a posh suburban neighborhood would see the new Lexus commercial, while a rental apartment building down the block would only see ads from Hyundai. Households with children would see ads for diapers and bicycles, while retirees would see ads featuring Ed McMahon selling life insurance.
The programs for this sort of directed, micro-targeted advertising will be tested by AT&T this fall in Aurora, Colorado, to be followed by similar tests from Time Warner and Cox Communications. AT&T is the largest cable operator in the United States.
The companies developing such intimate "addressable advertising" hope in due course to send two different ads to two different TVs in one household, depending on who's watching either one.
But gathering all of this personal information should be a cause for concern. While the cable companies state that advertisers will not receive personal information on any individual, do we really want the cable companies to collect this information and use it internally, largely without consent from the public? Can the cable companies force us to let them monitor our viewing habits simply because we purchase a digital cable option?
Jeff Chester is the executive director of the recently formed Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C., whose mission is to analyze new information technologies in the broadband era and to help safeguard the public from those technologies.
"An infrastructure is being built in this country to surveil every TV user, which sets the stage for unfair advertising practices.
"Congress must address this issue. We shouldn't allow this infrastructure to be built without the public being aware of how it will affect their children and families.
"This is a commercial surveillance tool that would have been the dream of the K-G-B, and now it is in the hands of the C-A-B-L-E."
Chester suggested that Congress would need additional legislation to address the possible abuses presented by the system.
Currently, the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act requires cable companies to disclose what personal information from subscribers they acquire each year and forces them to obtain written permission from that subscriber before sharing said information. It doesn't, however, limit what information they can acquire, and it doesn't require any oversight into how that information is used internally.
AT&T spokeswoman Tracy Baumgartger said the cable giant is aware of the public's apprehensions.
"Privacy is one of AT&T Broadband's key concerns. When we do anything that even approaches the privacy of our customers we send out notifications to alleviate those concerns.
"In this case the software targets 'buckets' of consumers. The advertiser will know how many people are in a 'bucket' but not who specifically is in a particular bucket. So there's no privacy concern.
"AT&T is committed to keeping our customers' information private." AT&T has gone on record to state that it would ask subscribers for approval to use acquired information, even internally. But cable companies can always sweeten the pot for potential sign-ups with perks such as reduced rates or extra channels.
The love of money--the root of all evil--spurred this project on, and will certainly see it through fruition. If advertisers are willing to spend so much money on television advertising each year to enter random homes, imagine how much more they would be willing to pay to reach prized potential pigeons using the cable company's information.
"[Addressable advertising] delivers incredible value on all fronts--for advertisers, customers and operators--and we're thrilled that the first trial of our service will be with an industry leader like AT&T," said David Reese, president of ACTV, Inc., which is developing the technology to deliver the targeted ads. "We believe that our SpotOn technology will create a paradigm shift in TV advertising."
That paradigm shift offers advertisers the power of video combined with the precision of micro-targeted marketing--a lethal combination that might spell doom for the last remaining shreds of personal privacy in the United States.