“Big Data” Ethics

Big Data Infographic
Big data infographic http://visual.ly/big-data

Big Data is changing the shape of business and our personal lives.  Everyday, whether we know it or not someone is doing data analysis on us.  Think about that. Some corporation is doing data analysis on you, possibly hundreds of times a day.  Should we be creeped out? Well of course, and perhaps not.

Big Data has practical benefits for you and corporations and we’ll look at that, but what happens when the benefits for you or your willing participation ceases, and corporations don’t care?  In this article, I will try to frame benefits for all of us, and also frame some things to worry about both in our personal and business lives.

Big Data is great, in the aggregate.

Big Data can be downright handy.  And in cases where it is used in ways similar to previous technologies, I think most people will consider its use acceptable. For example, when it is used as an extension/evolution of surveys or other public research. When used that way, the information is about an aggregate group or an average person.

Some real life examples of this come from LinkedIn, and are mentioned in an article from the Washington Post. LinkedIn leverages the vast data that it has gathered to determine “that a worker in San Francisco is more likely to move to New York for a job than to Fresno.” And they ”can share with a CEO, ‘Did you realize that Microsoft is winning talent from you three to one versus you to them?’ ”   These examples are extrapolations about groups of people, and (hopefully) no personal information is released.  And they seem reasonable and traditional ways for a company to monetize its audience.  The only difference with Big Data, is that it’s quicker and on a grander and more granular scale by far.

Another traditional way for a company to monetize its audience is by selling advertising.  And advertising so far is the only business model that seems to work for a variety of online companies, from Facebook to your local newspaper.  Though some sites do a hybrid of advertising and pay-wall like the New York Times, paywalls have in general proven hard to maintain.  Advertising is especially the current solution to keeping media companies alive.  And as Alexis Madrigal admits in his article for the Atlantic: “[Throwing up paywalls] would destroy what makes the web the unique resource in human history that it is. I want to keep the Internet healthy, which really does mean keeping money flowing from advertising.”

then internet knows all
Tom Fishburne

Aggregate in Name Only

The problem that I think most people have with Big Data, is the focus on individuality.  The traditional business model of a publication selling space to advertisers was based upon aggregate audience data gathered about readers of the publication.  Now Big Data from one company can be matched with another so that the advertising game is no longer about aggregates, but individuals.

As Madrigal explains: “For real-time advertising bidding, in which audiences are being served ads that were purchased milliseconds *after* users arrive at a webpage, ad services “match cookies,” so that both sides know who a user is… Everyone can know who you are, even if they call you by a different number [emphasis added].”

Madrigal quotes Joe Turrow as calling this state “anonymous in name only.” And though I agree that that’s part of the problem, I think the problem that creeps out most people is that it is “aggregate in name only”.  Big Data is used not to make decisions about groups of people, but about individual people. “Would this individual person likely click this article?” is the ultimate question of Big Data Advertising.

Though advertisers insist it’s a form of aggregation, they’ve changed the terms to suit their needs.  What they call aggregate is solely their initial step of deciding: “What Audience do we think will respond to this?”  After that the aggregation stops, as algorithms match individuals to that audience. Previously, they would match publications to the audience.

No longer are they dealing with an aggregate audience who choose to buy a publication and willfully expose themselves to the publication’s advertisers while maintaining their privacy. They are now dealing with individuals, who choose to view a publication, willfully exposing themselves to said publication’s advertisers, but generally unaware that they are giving up their privacy.

The cost of doing business?

This contrasts with the practice of some potential employers who request access to an individual’s social media accounts as part of the interview process.  This business practice is at least overt, and it  probably attains compliance through duress.  It has been accepted that public information about you is fair game for a company to investigate.

As Anita Ramasastry says in her article on Justia:  there are “currently-permitted employer practices, such as running background checks on potential employees and using private investigative (PI) firms and data brokers.” As she mentions, that has extended into the digital realm  where “70 percent of employment recruiters admitted that they had ruled [out] job applicants based on information they found online.”

That’s likely from public information, which businesses have a right to investigate. But when a business overtly attacks the privacy of individuals, they experience blow-back.

Blow-back and hope

As of January 2014, 11 states banned employers from asking for passwords for social media. And this seems like an appropriate response, and one that I hope continues.  Ramasastry explains that the practice of asking for passwords may already have been illegal and at the very least contrary to terms of use of social media companies.

Another potential sign of blow back is from a 2011 Marketing Science paper that was quoted in the Atlantic. “Ads that match both website content and are obtrusive do worse at increasing purchase intent than ads that do only one or the other. This failure appears to be related to privacy concerns.”  This is a win for those who like the ability to control their privacy, but it’s also a signal that more needs to be done.

Obtrusive ads, in regards to the paper, are those “that strove to be highly visible relative to the website content.” And it seems that unobtrusive ads do not activate the consumers privacy concerns as much as perhaps they should. This is evidenced by the continued use of such ads over 3 years later.  So it seems that the privacy invasion of “aggregate in name only” advertising primarily rests upon individuals’ perceived (not actual) privacy.


Do you think that individuals will begin to see the current state of advertising as invasive? Or do you think individuals will accept it as standard business practice?

Do you think that the primary problem is “aggregate in name only” or “anonymous in name only?”


2 responses to ““Big Data” Ethics”

  1. I think a lot of people probably already see certain ads as invasive, but I think it’s most likely that the more we see these types of ads, the less invasive they will feel. If people haven’t reacted strongly at this point, I think acceptance is the next step. I know I often see obtrusive ads from companies I shop at frequently pop up on Facebook, and while it’s a little creepy, I continue to shop there, and I continue to use Facebook. It doesn’t bother me all that much.

    I’m not sure I see a huge difference between aggregate in name only and anonymous in name only, although anonymous in name only seems slightly more threatening. Either way, the company collecting the data is doing the bare minimum to protect someone’s privacy, while still using every bit of information possible to increase sales. Like any technology, if it gets in the wrong hands, it could be very bad. There is always that risk, and especially with data collecting over the Internet. Unless there are specific laws against it, I can only foresee that it will continue.

  2. Good points. I think you’re right about the Lobster boil that’s happening. If you raise the heat slowly, we’ll never know and just accept what’s happening. Likewise, without laws it’s likely to continue, despite the risk of getting into the wrong hands.
    I hope the Sony hack will be a motivation for change. Maybe the actors and other victims will be a push for cyber privacy and encryption. But again, that too could be waived off by the average netizen as “not my problem.” I wonder how the debate around it will be framed in the coming months. For now it seems only about the specific case and not about the general issue of data security and privacy.

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