Surveillance Advertising

Good advertising doesn't have to follow you around the web

Modern online advertising works by accumulating and processing data on millions of people usually without their consent to help target ads with ever more granularity. This is called surveillance advertising and we believe in a different approach. Whether you're an individual just hoping to not be tracked, an advertiser looking for an alternative, or you run a website but don't want to sell your visitors' data, we want to help you opt-out.


Profiling millions of users for fun and profit

To first understand the problem, it's useful to go through some of the basics of online advertising. Showing the right ad is critical to good performance and as an advertiser you want to make sure your ad is shown to a relevant audience. As an ad network or publisher, a better ad results in more clicks, more interaction, and importantly more money. To ensure that the best-performing ads are shown to the right folks, ad networks build profiles of users. In the advertising industry, building a profile of users to target ads is called behavioral targeting or personalized advertising.

To build these profiles, most advertising networks create a database of user data in order to show the right ad. This can include data such as:

  • sites a user has visited or videos the user has seen in the past
  • a user's search history
  • ads, pages, or stories a user has clicked on in the past
  • demographic information such as age, zip or postal code, gender, or income level
  • personal information such as a name or email

Extremely large sites like Facebook have a lot of first-party data on users already such as the posts they've liked or the groups they are a member of. This data is very useful to target ads but all that data at least was given directly to Facebook willfully and voluntarily. Things get a little murkier when tracking users across the web on third-party sites.

Retargeting & remarketing

Building a profile from users' visits to third-party sites is typically accomplished by the use of trackers (sometimes called beacons or pixels). For example, if a site uses a tracker from an ad network and a user visits that site, the site operator can now target future advertising to that user – a known past visitor – with that network. This is called retargeting or remarketing. The site operator (often just a small business) gets to target their own ads better but also helps the ad network create their enormous database of all the sites users have visited in the past. Critically, the site visitor didn't agree to share this data with the ad network but their browser did it anyway.

Fine geographic targeting (geofences & beacons)

Both iOS and Android allow apps to register geofences. These are geographic areas where when a user's phone enters that area, the app will briefly wake up and take an action. They can also work similarly when a phone sees a unique bluetooth beacon they've been configured to watch for. When the geofence is seen, the device wakes up, sends a request to an ad network beacon, and the ad network can now target users who have been inside a specific geographic area in a similar way to retargeting.

A relatively benign example was an ad campaign for McDonald's that involved sending push notifications when people walked by a McDonald's. However, ad geofences have been used to target people who visit medical clinics, military bases, and other sensitive areas.

Lookalike audiences & similar audiences

Other ad predictions are made by grouping similar users together based on some user data and using machine learning. Frequently this involves an advertiser uploading personal data on users (often past customers of the advertiser) to an ad network and telling the network to target similar users. The idea is that two users with similar demographic information and similar interests would like the same products. In ad tech, this is known as lookalike audiences or similar audiences. This is frequently done without getting the permission or knowledge of the person whose personal information has been shared.

Understandably, many people have concerns about these targeting techniques. If you've ever felt that ads "follow you around" while you browse the web, it's because of these. While the modern advertising industry has built enormous value, it's done so by centralizing massive amounts of data on as many people as possible.

We target our ads differently

Our vision for advertising is different. We target exclusively based on the content of the page and general geography (usually the country level). For example, if you are browsing a page about front-end web development from Switzerland, we might show you an ad for a Swiss company looking to hire front-end web developers. These types of ads perform fantastically well and don't require compiling data on millions of users. It really is that simple to have a high-performing ad without tracking users.

This approach of putting ads next to relevant content is called contextual targeting and all advertising used to work this way. Before online advertising, advertisers placed an ad in a related magazine or during a TV program their desired audience watched. Every successful marketing campaign of the past worked this way and this approach built every iconic brand you can remember. Advertising doesn't have to be personalized to reach its target audience.

By focusing our ad network exclusively on developers, we already have a huge leg up in terms of reaching the right audience for an ad. If you're browsing a site with our ads, we don't need user profiles to know you're a developer. You're browsing a site for developers. By knowing a little more about the sites that run our ads, we can further focus on developer niches like data science or DevOps to reach just the right audience for an advertiser while still respecting the privacy of everyone involved.

Opting-out of surveillance advertising

As an individual

If you're an individual just aiming to not get profiled, there's a few steps we recommend:

  • On your browser, use a lightweight browser plugin that blocks most trackers. Usually by blocking trackers and ads that track you (but not our ads that don't), they'll make your browser feel even faster. We recommend Privacy Badger. Just a note that some sites will prompt you to "disable your ad blocker" while running these plugins but know that you are only blocking surveillance advertising. Doing this encourages these sites to support ads that don't track you.
  • On your phone, use a privacy-first browser like the DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser (App Store, Google Play) or Firefox Focus (App Store, Google Play). These browsers help you block most trackers while your browse the web from your phone.
  • Consider trying an alternative search engine like DuckDuckGo. For most people, it works just as well but without the tracking.

As a site operator

If you're a site operator, say a site for users interested in a certain niche or perhaps a small online business, there's a few things you can do:

  • If you plan to monetize your site with advertising, try to find a privacy-first ad network. If your site is for developers, please get in touch with us.
  • Lots of businesses and sites need some amount of analytics to make business decisions. Try a privacy-focused analytics solution like Fathom, Plausible, or SimpleAnalytics.
  • Even if you plan to advertise at some point in the future, don't run trackers on your site if possible.

As an advertiser

We understand that you can't just turn off all your ads. You'd quickly be out of a job. Whether you're a large or a small advertiser, here are some actions you can take to make privacy-focused advertising succeed:

  • Carve out a small amount of your ad budget and try a privacy-first ad network. If you're focused on reaching developers, we can help.
  • Depending on your business, you may be able to advertise locally or in a medium without surveillance advertising. Podcasts, newsletters, conferences, billboards, and local papers are all good options.
  • If you find a privacy-friendly option that works for you, tell your ad industry colleagues about it. It's in all of our best interests to make sure this side of advertising is a credible alternative.

Become an advertiser

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