Xaxis of Evil: Don't Worry, WPP's New Spying Database Will be "Anonymous"

Last Updated Jun 27, 2011 4:59 PM EDT

WPP's (WPPGY) new Xaxis unit, which contains what it claims is the world's largest database of unique individual profiles -- including demographic, financial, purchase and geographic histories -- is based on an impossible contradiction. The world's largest ad agency network told the WSJ that the data within it would be "anonymous" but the purpose of the data is to serve up personalized ads on any electronic device, including (eventually) your TV set.

It cannot possibly do both: In order for an ad to be personal -- indeed, in order for WPP to know that it already owns the profiles of 500 million individuals worldwide -- it must be able to distinguish between them and know that when it serves an ad to Joe Sixpack it isn't Jane Chardonnay who sees it.

It sounds as if WPP is trying to have its cake and eat it -- to give advertisers the individual targeting ability they crave while also reassuring consumers that their privacy isn't being invaded. Of course, if the world's largest ad agency has a database that identifies you by name, ethnicity, location and financial history, and is targeting you with personally tailored ads, what privacy do you have left?

WPP wants you to stop worrying and learn to love its advertising panopticon, because it will be very "strict," according to Rob Norman, CEO of GroupM Interaction, a WPP ad-buying unit:

We will clearly play in terms of the strictest rules of self-regulation.
Self-regulation has not been a particularly successful guarantor of consumer privacy. Sony's PlayStation network was hacked this year. Twice. Citigroup had to send 200,000 customers new credit cards after a security breach. Here's a list of companies that the FTC has cited for violating consumer privacy.

The purpose of Xaxis is, in fact, spying, the WSJ says:

Xaxis will build up its database by tracking consumers via ads and marketers' websites. It also will tap existing customer databases as well as buying data from more than two dozen outside firms, such as BlueKai and DataLogix. Xaxis says it will store advertisers' data separately to avoid conflicts.
Nor is it new. The Xaxis press release shows that WPP has been collecting this data and acting on it for years.

Related: