Are search algorithms viruses?

“I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.”
– Stephen Hawking

You could certainly argue that the algorithms and search index bots created by the Googles of the world are in fact very similar to viruses: They travel the web from link to link gathering as much information as possible and transmit that information back to a private company that profits from it. Is this technically different from a virus that travels to your hard drive and transmits your personal information back to someone whose intent is to profit from it? The intent is the same but the word ‘personal’ is where the difference lies. When you get personal you break the law.

There is a lot of debate among online marketers about the tracking of individual behavior on the web. Behavioral targeting and retargeting use your surfing history to assemble a profile of what you’re interested in and then use that profile to serve up ads that they think you will be interested in. These ads appear in sites you are expected to surf to. For advertisers these ‘targeted by intent and relevance’ ads are far more valuable than taking a shotgun approach to a campaign. So is your privacy being invaded? Are they related to malicious viruses? Again, no, because they only know your IP address, not your identity.

This is where the line is drawn in the sand in online marketing. As long as they can’t identify us personally these techniques should be legal. To use personal information we must have opted-in or given permission for that use. As regulators look at the world of personalized marketing online this should be the standard benchmark for defining the difference between legitimate targeted marketing tactics and spammy illegal attempts to acquire personal information without permission.

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