Who Am I? A Design Probe Exploring Real-Time Transparency about Online and Offline User Profiling Underlying Targeted Ads

Natã M. Barbosa, Gang Wang, Blase Ur, Yang Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To enable targeted ads, companies profile Internet users, automatically inferring potential interests and demographics. While current profiling centers on users' web browsing data, smartphones and other devices with rich sensing capabilities portend profiling techniques that draw on methods from ubiquitous computing. Unfortunately, even existing profiling and ad-targeting practices remain opaque to users, engendering distrust, resignation, and privacy concerns. We hypothesized that making profiling visible at the time and place it occurs might help users better understand and engage with automatically constructed profiles. To this end, we built a technology probe that surfaces the incremental construction of user profiles from both web browsing and activities in the physical world. The probe explores transparency and control of profile construction in real time. We conducted a two-week field deployment of this probe with 25 participants. We found that increasing the visibility of profiling helped participants anticipate how certain actions can trigger specific ads. Participants' desired engagement with their profile differed in part based on their overall attitudes toward ads. Furthermore, participants expected algorithms would automatically determine when an inference was inaccurate, no longer relevant, or off-limits. Current techniques typically do not do this. Overall, our findings suggest that leveraging opportunistic moments within pervasive computing to engage users with their own inferred profiles can create more trustworthy and positive experiences with targeted ads.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3478122
JournalProceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • online behavioral advertising
  • profiling
  • technology probe
  • transparency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Hardware and Architecture
  • Computer Networks and Communications


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