Big Data, Microtargeting & Nudging

What a difference a few government-run Big Data-collection scandals makes to The New York Times’ Big Data coverage.

For the past couple of months, the Times (in print and online) has run stories about the sexiness of Big Data and data science as a career field. Rarely have these stories carried any real caveats or humanistic opinions on the uses and effects of Big Data. It seems it is okay if vast collections of information are built about us by for-profit companies, but bad if done by the government (under whatever auspices).

I don’t think either are good. These collection efforts are the tip of the iceberg, I fear. Consider:

When separate streams of data are integrated into large databases — matching, for example, time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases or E-ZPass use — intelligence analysts are given a mosaic of a person’s life that would never be available from simply listening to their conversations. Just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call, a study published in Nature found, make it possible to identify the caller 95 percent of the time. [Emphasis added.]

You read that right. Four. I’ve heard as high as 25 data points (with, of course, slightly higher accuracy) being needed. Whatever the number, it’s clear – and a little frightening – how easy personal identification is accomplished. But beyond just identifying people, what I really fear is a future (and this is a rather dystopian, and laughable, if you like, view) in which not only are we so easily identified but can also be nudged in making choices we may not have cognitively intended. The Times has already noted that Target, through the use of Big Data, can predict pregnancies by a woman’s purchasing behavior. The company, knowing that women are more likely to change their shopping loyalty when pregnant, identifies and microtargets (using those few data points) those women, nudging them with coupons and other incentives to do so. This nudging an individual into doing something (as (in)significant as building brand loyalty) is what I fear most.

If the corporate use of Big Data, microtargeting and what I call nudging doesn’t bother you, well:

Industry experts say that intelligence and law enforcement agencies also use a new technology, known as trilaterization, that allows tracking of an individual’s location, moment to moment. The data, obtained from cellphone towers, can track the altitude of a person, down to the specific floor in a building. There is even software that exploits the cellphone data seeking to predict a person’s most likely route. “It is extreme Big Brother,” said Alex Fielding, an expert in networking and data centers. [Emphasis added again.]

Great. They can predict our movements, to some degree. But what about when they have enough data and experience that not only can they predict we will walk down that hall but how to nudge us into doing so whether we consciously want to or not? What happens when the data gets so big and the microtargeting so advanced, that companies, governments, political parties and others can predict when in our lives (or narrow demographic) and what nudge(s) change our long-term buying habits, political beliefs and more. (I warned this was a rather dystopian view.)

Humoring the above, the “extreme Big Brother” comment seems a little premature. Companies, governments and others will have to add people skilled in the social sciences and humanities to their data science and microtargeting staffs before such nudging can be effectively implemented on a personalized level. I think it healthy to consider Big Data and microtargeting as so complementary that they should always be linked when thinking about one or the other individually.

Ultimately, I’m hoping more people will start to seriously consider the amount of personal data they share online – and agitate for more control over it. Controlling as much of one’s data as possible is the only way to begin to prevent such outcomes as my Orwellian vision.

It’s one thing to get recommendations on movies and books you may enjoy. Being forced to like those movies and books is far more nefarious.

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