Digital firms embrace the creepy, out users in ads — ‘the person who streamed ‘Issues’ over 3,152 times’

A Spotify ad spotted on the DC Metro

Bob Sullivan

If you have any doubts that the companies you trust with your data are indeed watching you closely, a few new creepy ads should disavow you of that notion.  In fact, it seems digital firms are starting to lean in to the creepy.

The ad above, and the ads below, were spotted Dec. 20 on the Washington D.C. Metro. Hopefully you weren’t the person who streamed the Julia Michaels song “Issues” on the streaming service Spotify 3,152 times this year. (NOTE: That’s Julia Michaels in the ad, not a Spotify user. The same applies to the ads below).

I’ve asked Spotify if these are real users, or just made-up for-the-fun-of-it factoids; if the firm answers, I’ll let you know.  Either choice seems bad, however.   If the facts are fake, Spotify seems to be taking a casual attitude towards the privacy of users, some who might not think it’s funny to divulge an individual user’s preferences in this way.

And if the facts are real, the privacy implications seem obvious.  While the actual human being with all those “issues” isn’t identified, he or she might very well find out about the ad and feel violated.  Or mocked.  Or put at risk for the disclosure of a serious mental health problem. Meanwhile, everyone else might wonder, “Am I next?” or, “How far might Spotify take this joke?”

For a sense of that, see the ads below.

This creepy ad trend was first spotted by Zach Whittaker at ZDNet last week after Netflix published a Tweet that bothered some users.

“To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?” the Tweet read.  It prompted swift backlash.

“Why are you calling people out like that Netflix,” wrote one in reply.

“So much for privacy” wrote another.

Corporations mine data like this all the time — any visit to Facebook will prove that.  But it’s unusual for them to call such attention to the data mining, let alone splatter it around in advertising.

To be clear, Metro riders have no idea who the “Issues” person is from the ad; he or she is not named. Corporations often say they carefully anonymize data before they study it or use it.  Studies by privacy scholars like Carnegie Mellon’s Alessandro Acquisti have shown that seemingly anonymized data can be combined with other data sets to reveal the identities of people in them, however.  I’ll not ruminate on how someone might “out” the subjects of these Spotify ads, but you probably ponder that on your own.

Either way — even if the factoids are fake — the ads seem to show Spotify has no concerns about listeners knowing they are being observed to this degree. The firm might be right. Spotify did something similar last year, too.   (“Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day, what did you do?”)

Here are a few more ads spotted on the D.C. Metro.


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