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Pandora’s Ears

pandora boxPandora is using its customers’ song choices to target them for ads, reports Natasha Singer in The New York Times (1/5/14). "It’s becoming quite apparent to us that the world of playing the perfect music to people and the world of playing perfect advertising to them are strikingly similar," says Pandora chief scientist Eric Bieschke. "There are a lot of interesting things we can do on the music side that bridge the way to advertising," he says. So far, Pandora has "song preference and other details about 200 million registered users."

These users have expressed their "likes and dislikes by pressing the site’s thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons more than 35 billion times." Pandora "also knows whether people are tuning in from their cars, from iPhones or Android phones or desktop." Eric says the Pandora advantage is that it can target users "down to the individual level, to the specific person who is using Pandora … take all of these signals and look at correlations that lead us to come up with magical insights about somebody." These insights can include "political beliefs, religious faith … or other intimate issues."

Vitaly Shmatikov of the University of Texas agrees that this is pretty potent stuff: "I would guess, looking at music choices, you could probably predict with high accuracy, a person’s worldview," he says. Pandora itself claims it can "deconstruct users’ song preferences to predict their political party of choice," and, because it has each user’s zipcode, can then target ads based on their voting district. Vitaly thinks this is okay. "I’m optimistic the benefits to society will outweigh the risks," he says, "But our attitudes will have to evolve to understand that now everybody knows more about who we are."