Careful observers of The Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series are aware that its dual purposes are to (1) freak you the fuck out about the Internet, and (2) win the paper a Pulitzer. But while it often feels like equal parts fearmongering and rigorous investigation, today’s dispatch actually unnerved us. Mostly because it hits that most sacred American hearth: our TV sets. In order to compete with online advertising, which can narrow a consumer down to a “Chicago residents shopping for plane tickets to Los Angeles,” cable and satellites companies are trying to find out who, exactly, they’re selling ads to. In some cases that means matching what cable companies know about subscribers with third-party information like prescription-drug records obtained from insurers.
But more typically it involves figuring out what you watch (in some cases “second by second”) and matching that with household data. Cablevision already launched a system that can show different commercials in real time to households watching the exact same program. The U.S. Army used it to test recruitment ads on charming-sounding demographics like “youth ethnic I” and “youth ethnic II.” Oh yeah, now we remember why we got freaked out.