Big data’s guinea pigs


While we are rightfully concerned over the NSA’s wholesale vacuuming up of communications data in its purported war on terror, there’s a much more sinister effort out there to more completely mine our data, and most of us go willingly along with it.

"By one estimate, more than 98 percent of the world’s information is now stored digitally, and the volume of that data has quadrupled since 2007," wrote Don Peck for The Atlantic.

This "datafication" of society touches all parts of our lives -- from where we shop and what we shop for, what we post about ourselves on Facebook and Linked In, what we are saying via e-mail and Twitter, and what our interests are based on Internet searches.

"Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information," wrote Alice E. Marwick for the New York Review of Books. "Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all."

The second-largest data collection company, Acxiom, has 23,000 computer servers that process more than 50 trillion data transactions per year.

"Acxiom creates profiles, or digital dossiers, about millions of people, based on the 1,500 points of data about them it claims to have," wrote Marwick. "These data might include your education level; how many children you have; the type of car you drive; your stock portfolio; your recent purchases; and your race, age, and education level."

Acxiom sells these consumer profiles to its customers, which include 12 of the top 15 credit card issuers, seven of the top 10 retail banks, eight of the top 10 telecom/media companies, and nine of the top 10 property and casualty insurers. And it’s not just those that are trying to separate you from your hard-earned cash who are customers of data collectors such as Acxiom.

"We may be more concerned with government surveillance than with marketers or data brokers collecting personal information, but this ignores the fact that the government regularly purchases data from these companies," noted Marwick.

For example, ChoicePoint maintained 17 billion records on businesses and individuals, which it sold to approximately 100,000 clients, including 35 government agencies and 7,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

And how about those free and cheap apps you download to your mobile device? While many of them are great tools for connecting us to friends, helping us to lose weight or make better choices at the supermarket, they’re really nothing more than data-collecting software.

Every time we use one of those apps it collects data, salts it away somewhere and then makes it available to whoever pays the asking price.

And your mobile phone has something called a MAC address, that retailers can use to track your movements and your behavior. If you are at the mall and feel like you are being followed ... well, you are ...

"Many of us now expect our online activities to be recorded and analyzed, but we assume the physical spaces we inhabit are different," wrote Kate Crawford for Scientific American. "The data broker industry doesn’t see it that way. To them, even walking down the street is a legitimate data set to be captured, catalogued and exploited."

In Toronto, a company named Turnstyle has placed hundreds of sensors to gather the MAC signals from smartphones. The data is then anonymized and sold to retailers to help them better understand their customers. But even anonymous data can be reassembled, maintain privacy advocates.

All this leads us to conclude that our technology is fast outpacing the legal protections that were written long before computer chips took over the world.

"The technology is developing far more rapidly than our consumer protection laws, which in many cases are out of date and difficult to apply to our networked world," wrote Marwick.

"We are now faced with large-scale experiments on city streets where people are in a state of forced participation, without any real ability to negotiate the terms, and often without the knowledge their data is being collected," wrote Crawford.

She is calling for a sweeping debate about ethics, boundaries and regulations for data collection technology.

"An honest discussion will begin with a recognition that the system is now acutely skewed in favor of the data collectors, and that this power imbalance needs to be addressed directly."

While some federal legislators have expressed concern about the issue, not much has been done about it. Part of the reason is its complexity, but most acutely it’s because big data is big business and what we’ve learned about big business is it’s got the ear of those who write the laws.

So while we wait for our privacy to be protected, we all get to feel what it’s like to be guinea pigs, albeit anesthetized by social media and Flappy Birds and Miley Cyrus, but guinea pigs nonetheless.

~ Brattleboro Reformer


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