Web ads are reading my keystrokes and I can’t even spel propperlie

Let’s not get paranoid, here, but...

Something for the Weekend, Sir? A friend has the willies. He even went on Facebook to tell us about his willies. He’s not normally the kind to get the willies, but willies is what he has.

American readers of this column may be disappointed to learn that my friend is neither a fellow of loose morals nor is he, as far as I am aware, multitudinally superappendaged. The expression simply means he was unnerved by something. Replace “willies” with “creeps” and you get the idea.

The source of his concern is Facebook. You could say that my friend is cowering under Mark Zuckerberg’s willies.

He was typing a comment saying that he tends to travel with only carry-on baggage these days, and apparently the Facebook ad in the right-hand pane changed to one for luggage. Here’s the creepy bit: the ad changed while he was still typing, before tapping Enter.

Double creepy was that he uses an ad-blocker. It would seem that both the previous ad and the new ad forcefully penetrated his protective layer and thrust their way onto his screen. Typical willies.

Most of us have experienced something like this, albeit not in real time, in which something you order, browse or even mistakenly click on quickly becomes the subject of a manic obsession on the part of your web browser. Online retailers can be amusing in this respect, particularly Amazon and especially if you have a family. Until recently, the bots at Amazon must have thought I was a multi-instrumentalist yoga instructor with a penchant for teen fiction and cable adapters.

Today, when I look at my “recommendations”, I’m faced with seven screenfuls of dire apps for the Fire HD stick. This is because of one relatively uneventful evening while I was trying to get the bloody thing to do something other than relentlessly try to upsell me to Prime so that I can get unlimited access to TV shows and movies that I don’t want to watch.

All I did was install YouTube, Vevo and AirReceiver, and now Amazon thinks I’ve abandoned the idea of reading books altogether in favour of installing every glitchy, dopey little Fire app going, including one app whose sole feature appears to be the ability to run other apps.

Bespoke ads are a different matter. The whole idea is that by allowing Google to track your online retail activity, the ads it vomits up onto the page are more likely to be relevant to you. As a result, I’m in two minds about blocking ads. I don’t like Google tracking my every step, breath and heartbeat but on the other hand I don’t mind at all being sold to, and often I am very appreciative, if the ads are relevant.

Back in the stone age when the music industry could support weekly printed papers such as Melody Maker, Sounds and NME (before it became awful), you’d flick through page after page of ads for gigs, record releases and trendy gear, and you’d absolutely love it. Why? Because the ads made sense: they sold you stuff you were interested in.

In the modern disruptive world, however, browsing an online music site is just as likely to reveal ads for axle grinders, remote-controlled blinds, retirement plans and plastic toys for preschoolers. Digital advertising is utter bollocks.

The problem is that if you unblock the digital ads, the algorithms don’t bother evaluating your preferences in a measured way so much as develop an instant fixation on the first thing you click, then refuse to be talked out of it, ever.

Even now, when I try to lift the restrictions for just a minute or two, I invariably get men’s wallets.

Leather ones, fabric ones, plastic RFID-blocking ones; slot-type, concertina-type, flip-flop type; tiny compact formats for trouser pockets; bulky formats designed to hold a passport, travel documents, notepad, pen, smartphone, Black & Decker workbench and power tools. Every ad on every page wants me to buy a wallet.

On the other hand, looking in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, I do seem to have acquired more wallets than strictly necessary – in other words, more than one. Like fat women buying lots of shoes or the way my mother used to collect all manner of useless crap featuring the gurning, smarmy, come-hit-me faces of the Royal Family, perhaps I’m a sucker for new wallets (and, as my wife will attest, hip flasks – but that’s another story).

Perhaps those online ads are correctly targeted after all. My man-purses and my friend’s willies probably go together well.

What worries me is what happened to my friend: that the ad algorithms will linger on my every keystroke and jump to the first idiotic conclusion it fancies. I had heard about messaging routines that transmit your keystrokes to the recipient in real time without waiting for you to edit and send, and my friend’s experience leads me to suspect these might already be in operation.

I anticipate a whole load of trouble with this technology arising from the inability to correct poor typing or, for that matter, to correct autocorrect. It won’t be the first time I have contrived to type “shit” instead of “shop”, and now I won’t have the chance to correct it before it gets read. So my friends and family can look forward to real-time messages from me that read:

I’m shitting at the moment. Do you want anything?

Even as I furiously backspace in my attempt to fix the typo, the ad on my Facebook page will switch to one for toilet paper.

Just as long as the security services don’t get in on the act. The last thing we need is someone to starting typing to his mates “I’ve made a bomb!” just as his doors are kicked in and he is dragged off to Cuba for nine years of waterboarding, only for it to turn out he had re-edited the text before sending the message so that it read “I’ve made loads of money!”

Well, let’s not be paranoid, eh? It’s all harmless ads, after all. Tell you what, for a bit of fun I’ll use Facebook Messenger now to buzz the family when dinner’s ready.

Let’s eat kids!

Silly me, I left out the comma. Hang on... do I hear sirens?

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. If readers share this week's column, he anticipates that Google’s crawlers will identify “Mark Zuckerberg’s willies” as a valid keyphrase and enhance The Register’s SEO rating accordingly. He looks forward to studying the analytics before introducing further search engine chart-toppers such as “Satya Nadella’s sternum”, “Tim Cook’s kneecaps” and “Thomas J Watson’s gonads”.


Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2017