These days, “big data” is all in the news. Generally speaking, the phrase “big data” is a marketing and hype placeholder for stores and streams of data that are unstructured (or minimally so: media, location, text, graphic, logs, et al.), of large volume (from within corporations as well as from mobile, tracking, and other devices), and constantly being generated (“real-time data,” flows of transactions, user uploads, newly created stats and analytics, etc.). The idea of big data represents The Internet + The Internet of Us + The Internet of Things–everything we can know, measure and analyze about what’s going on in the world.
Note that I included The Internet of Us. Many people don’t know the degree to which we’re being captured by our statements, posts and tweets, our (ongoing) location, our habits, the purchases and transactions we make, our friends who unwittingly help triangulate us, the timing and patterns of our lives, and much, much more. We have not yet realized how many breadcrumbs we’re creating just by living in our world. The thing is, we aren’t confronted by this fact, and we don’t generally have occasion to realize on our own, until something happens.
That’s where Google comes in. Google has a lot of services, from gmail to G+, from Google Docs and Google Groups (mailing lists) to Google sign-in for other services, and don’t forget the whole Android universe (tied into Google via the android operating system, the market, calendar, maps, etc.). Google is the 8 ton gorilla with a lot of admirers, and as such is in the news for everything they might be doing wrong. Two things they’ve been in the news for lately: first for their rather clumsy, clueless policy handling of users’ “real names” in their new Google Plus (G+) service (the controversy is also commonly referred to as “nymwars” by many commentators including here, here and here, and is not unique to Google, e.g., Facebook’s run-in with a famous author). More recently Google has been in the news for the significant changes to their many privacy policies (bundling all of their prior separate policies into one meta-policy, reasonably discussed here). What it’s all really about is tracking: they want to know who they’re tracking, which profiles go to which people, and who their products are. Google just wants to know what we’re up to so they can be more “helpful” to us. Kind of like being “really good listeners” like in Comedia’s old G-Male video.
This is where Target comes in too. Target has been in the news over the last few days for having outed a pregnant teen. Yes, companies know full well that sometimes we don’t want to share our secrets. What they’re doing isn’t strictly against the law, so it must be ok, right?
A Damned Lack of Transparency
One of the big problems with analyzing the ongoing data flow is a lack of transparency. These companies don’t seem to want us to know what they’re doing, what they’re up to. They want to know things about us that (one could reasonably argue) are not supportive of our own best interests, and compromise our self-determination. In short, these companies want what’s best for themselves, but not necessarily what’s best for us. There, I said it.
If WE knew what companies could know–if we could see the connections in our activities and transactions that lead to generalizations, assumptions, categorizations, and manipulation (through “friendly advice,” coupons & discounts, additional loyalty programs, etc.), then this shared knowledge would be grounds for a very different societal conversation. Instead we have companies doing this TO us, in opaque ways, using presumptions that are good for the company but often oblivious to the societal impact/message, cultural understanding and acceptance, or really any constructive discussion or forward momentum about the changes yet to come. It’s that “big data” thing coming to bite us. A very real data-Godzilla.
Target may not be any more to blame than other companies doing the same thing. The unintended consequences (Dad waves evidence publicly at Target management, Google being hauled before some committee for changing privacy policies, etc.) is as much a matter of 1) expression of selfish intent by corporate marketing departments (arguably their job) and 2) an uneven distribution of understanding (what’s going on) than legal or regulatory problems.
There’s also an uneven understanding/acceptance about people–individuals–AKA “consumers” being subject to tracking, which leads to the consequences of 3rd party disclosure. The fact that ANY company is all up in your personal business to that extent is a surprise to most. Vulnerable populations or situations are not exception-able.
What happens when we really find out what’s going on? Is any company writing “viral backlash” into their business plan? Or will these companies just send more coupons and hope that everything will be quietly forgotten?