This Student Project Could Kill Digital Ad Targeting

New School Student's System Confuses Ad Targeting With Cookie Misinformation

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Meet Rachel Law, a 25-year-old graduate student from Singapore, who has created a game that could literally wreak havoc on the online ad industry if released into the wild.

Rachel Law
Rachel Law

Her creation, called "Vortex," is a browser extension that's part game, part ad-targeting disrupter that helps people turn their user profiles and the browsing information into alternate fake identities that have nothing to do with reality.

People who use the browser tool, which works with Firefox and Chrome, effectively confuse the technologies that categorize web audiences into likely running shoe buyers, in-market auto buyers, or moms interested in cooking and football.

"It's a way of masking your identity across networks," said Ms. Law. Ad Age visited the recent Design and Technology Masters grad at Parsons New School in Manhattan, where she sat working on her laptop in a sun-filled yet desolate lab space dedicated to collaboration among design and tech students.

It's a bit like the ad blocker extensions of yore, except it scrambles information to trick ad targeters, all in service of an addictive game deemed "Site Miner," which allows players to fish for cookies visualized as sea creatures. Players can gobble up cookies Pac-Man style, creating a pool of profile information that has nothing to do with their actual web behavior.

Cookies that misinform
"I made it so that you give out misinformation," said Ms. Law, who spoke with Mozilla representatives via Skype last week about Vortex. When asked whether Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, is considering enabling a version of Vortex as a Firefox plugin, David Ascher, Mozilla Labs Director told Ad Age, "We have no such plans."

The Vortex Site Miner game
The Vortex Site Miner game

The Vortex system will build a database of cookies gathered by players. Cookies are little pieces of software left by web sites on web browsers that hold information telling advertisers what type of consumers people are and how to target them.

Part of the goal is to understand how ad targeting algorithms peg people in specific audience segments. "That's why it needs critical mass, because only when enough people are playing can we start seeing patterns in what kind of cookies or attribute-identifiers companies look for and discriminate with," she said.

Though users will only be able to access the cookies they've gathered, a wiki will expose the kinds of cookies available, she said.

"It acts like a translator…. It basically fucks up algorithims," said Ms. Law, who stressed she isn't against advertising. She does have concerns about the societal effects of data-informed targeting, however.

Rachel Law at work at Parsons New School
Rachel Law at work at Parsons New School

"I think targeting is harmful when confidential information, such as your medical issues or criminal records, is used against you as a form of price discrimination. Retailers should not be able to discriminate based on health history, whether or not you've committed a crime before, your sexual preferences or history, etc., because this is private information pertaining to an individual," she said.

"I like to imagine in the future targeted advertising becomes a targeted choice for both advertisers and users," she said. "For instance, if a user decides to go shoe-shopping for summer, he or she could equip their browser with the cookies most associated and aligned with shopping, shoes and summer ... users can choose what kind of advertisements they want to see."

Vortex features a profile switcher that people can use and share to take on a new identity while browsing the web. "It's a way of masking your identity across networks," she said.

If, for instance, several people have access to a Twitter profile, they might all use the same profile accessible through the Player Switcher in Vortex. A private mode only accesses third party cookies associated with a profile, rather than logins, passwords and other more sensitive data.

Part of the draw is that everyone operating via the same profile will have the same experience. Search results on Google, for example, often vary depending on an individual's previous searches. This way, everyone sees the same results.

Privacy tool or weapon?
Vortex isn't available publicly or even in a closed beta form, so it's unclear what impact it could have if released into the wild. Ms. Law plans to launch the Site Miner component -- the cookie eating game -- as an open source technology by the end of September. Her aim is to help people understand what cookies and metadata are, and potentially prevent users from falling prey to data-driven targeting that serves up higher prices for products or airline tickets to some people depending on information such as the average household income level associated with their geographic location.

Though they can change their location data, the system automatically labels users as residents of Narnia, the fantastical realm created by C.S. Lewis.

Vortex has security holes that could be exploited by nefarious actors, which is one reason Ms. Law refuses to release the full platform. A hacker could create a profile that expires, allowing him to run a distributed attack via that one profile which -- to put it in espionage terms -- self-destructs before law enforcement can track it down.

"In its current state now it's a weapon," said Ms. Law. "Do I want it to get in the hands of the Syrian Electric Army? No!"

To be fair, Ms. Law is not the most experienced computer programmer, so she said she needs assistance to make Vortex more secure. She has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Photography from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and "crash-learned" programming.