Apparently, it’s still possible to fool Google

Researchers have found that men are almost six times more likely than women to be shown ads on news websites for a career coaching service for $200k+ executive positions. The findings suggest some of the algorithms involved in tracking internet users have discriminatory outcomes. They might lead to «deeper investigations by either the companies themselves or by regulatory bodies», the authors add (via WP).

Not just the findings are interesting, but so is the research method. The researchers created AdFisher, basically a smart web scraper built with Python. AdFisher can create large numbers of «agents», have them visit certain websites or alter their profile via the Google Ad Settings, and then see what ads it gets shown on websites like the Times of India or the Guardian. Further, it will organise these activities in such a way that experimental and control conditions can be compared, and it will even analyse the results, using machine learning to figure out what may have triggered differences in what ads are shown.

Somehow this reminded me of the patent Apple (!) obtained for a cloning service to fool the companies that are tracking you. The service would mimick some of your normal online behaviour, but also do other stuff, such as faking an interest in basket weaving. This way it would contaminate the profile these companies keep of you, perhaps to the point of making it useless.

So would you be able to get away with that? If you open a bunch of browser windows with Google searches, Google will ask you to fill out a captcha to make sure you’re human («Our systems have detected unusual traffic from your computer network. This page checks to see if it’s really you sending the requests, and not a robot»). This is a very simple example, but given the fast-developing ability to analyse patterns in online behaviour, you’d expect that companies like Google and Facebook would have become eerily accurate at identifying (real) internet users and telling them from bots.

Against that background, it’s somehow reassuring that it’s apparently still possible to fool Google by creating a fake profile.

P.s. I’ve never been shown ads for a career coaching service for $200k+ executive positions, but if they do turn up I’ll just tell Google I’m a woman.