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Big Data is watching you | The World Weekly

At a glance, Facebook appears to be free. Its registration page, after all, doesn’t ask for your bank details, nor does it even ask for a donation. Yet Facebook doesn’t give away access to its platform for nothing. Your name, your gender, your date of birth, your hometown, your email address; these are your payments to Facebook. These innocuous facts about yourself are supplemented the more you use the site; the pages you ‘like’, the locations you ‘check in’ to, the websites you visit; all this information is collected, organised, and stored in one of Facebook’s vast data storage facilities. Mark Zuckerberg farms data and the harvest is plentiful.

All across the Internet our movements are tracked. Most of us are desensitised to the endless terms of service agreements, EULAs (end-user license agreements) and cookie permissions we encounter online, thoughtlessly clicking ‘agree’ with no clue of what we’re agreeing to, allowing the tracking, buying and selling of our personal information in the process.

Should we be more worried about who’s watching us online?

Ad Nauseam

Once, reach was king in the advertising world. TV, radio and newspapers offered huge audiences of engaged potential customers to marketers, and it was the job of the ad men to push these audiences into shops. The advent of digital advertising opened up a wealth of new possibilities. Adverts could now be delivered to individuals, enabling targeted advertising. To target an ad, however, you need to know a bit about the person you’re targeting.

Hence the data rush. Any website which can give a marketer useful information about its users can charge a higher price for its advertising inventory. “Data is the fuel behind many of the trading, targeting and effectiveness techniques used for digital media – it has become an essential part of the process at all levels including creative execution, audience building and post-campaign analysis,” a spokesperson from the Internet Advertising Bureau told The World Weekly. “The wealth of data now available to marketers in display advertising means that marketers can infer the consumer’s intent based on their online behaviour and provide a better conversation between their brand and their audience.”

First party data is often information voluntarily provided via users’ profile details and interactions with the site, but is not limited to this. Companies like Facebook and Twitter can track users across the web by embedding their own code in foreign websites, often in the form of a login or a share button. This all builds a comprehensive profile of their visitors, allowing advertisers to customise their adverts to fit the individual.

Less visible are the third-party data gatherers. Numerous companies have sprung up dedicated to farming data from a variety of sources and packaging it to be sold. This data comes from a variety of sources, including surveys and signups produced by the data miners, to cookies planted on websites that agree to host them. Advertisers themselves may directly embed cookies too, tracking audiences across a variety of websites they work with.

All this is not necessarily a bad thing. Advertising, after all, is what allows so many online services to remain free of monetary cost. Consumers are increasingly aware of this - 71% of UK consumers recognise that advertising pays for content, according to YouGov. Indeed, companies like Faktor seek to make the link between data provision and free services even clearer, allowing access to content based on provision of information.

Advertisers themselves don’t see their business as Orwellian. Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard spoke with enthusiasm at this year’s DMEXCO conference in Cologne about the potential for Pampers to target relevant adverts and coupons at pregnant women throughout each stage of their motherhood and pregnancy. To some, this is intrusive, but to advertisers, this simply enhances the advertising experience for audiences.

Manipulative microtargeting

Nonetheless, tracking sits uncomfortably with many. First among complaints is that online monitoring violates an individual’s inherent right to privacy, a right which exists regardless of whether tracked data is used maliciously. “Household brands shouldn’t have a blank check to monitor us everywhere just because we log in to them for specific, narrow purposes. If you are not willingly accessing their services, why should they know where you are?” asks Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for online privacy.

There are also worries about the use of big data for political purposes. Separation of tech and state has been upheld in some cases by companies that simply refuse to cooperate with government bodies, as with Apple and WhatsApp’s refusal to allow access to their users’ information. But Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) big data enabled microtargeting in both the US election and the Brexit vote, which has raised serious ethical concerns. Big data “is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realise is happening to them,” Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University, told The Guardian. “To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.”

CA has boasted of holding an average 5,000 data points on more than 230 million American citizens, all legally obtained, which is then used to target political messages at those it believed to be swayable. Using data is no rare thing in politics, and indeed ironically some of the confident predictions that Hillary Clinton would win last year’s election were based on the supposed superiority of her data analytics department. But some believe that CA’s marriage of huge datasets and AI goes beyond advanced advertising, and constitutes manipulation.

Web servers inside the Facebook Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, US

The Cambridge Analytica case raises another danger: that the vast data reserves held by giants like Facebook and Google might not be secure. CA harvested Facebook data by running personality quizzes on the site which required participants to yield access to their profiles, granting information not just on the quiz taker, but the quiz taker’s friends too. Revelations have surfaced in recent weeks too that Facebook hosted political ads in last year’s US presidential election paid for by Russia-connected groups. Around $150,000 has been found to have been spent on more than 3,000 ads, all aimed at key swing state voters via Facebook’s targeting tools.

Even where access to data through legal means is blocked off, it is possible that databases could be hacked, as shown by high profile breaches of Apple and Sony accounts in the past.

Regaining control

Increased awareness of online privacy violations has ramped up pressure on governments to enshrine greater consumer protections into law. Weighing heavily on advertisers’ minds at the moment is the EU’s upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, which comes into effect next year, handing consumers more control over their data and allowing them to withdraw consent of use of their data at any time.

Other tech companies have also sought to build greater privacy provisions into their products. Apple recently upset marketers with an update to their Safari OS which limits websites’ ability to track their visitors, prompting a disgruntled response from trade bodies.

The problem with both of these so-called solutions is that they only really target third-party data trackers. This will certainly help limit the amount we’re being monitored by companies we’ve never even heard of, but will in turn hand big wins to the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, whose abundance of first party data will likely draw in even more advertisers. How can these companies be kept in check?

WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell, speaking at last month’s Advertising Week conference in New York, noted that tech giants have shown greater responsibility the larger they have grown. Facebook has pledged to build more transparency into its advertising structure in the wake of the Russia scandal, and both Facebook and Google allow users to view and download a copy of their personal data stored by the services.

But it’s the users who ultimately have the power to keep these companies under control. It is only because the likes of Facebook and Amazon are such attractive services that they’ve become so powerful; we actively give them our personal data when we use them. The more entrenched these companies become in our daily lives, the harder we may find it to withdraw our custom should they overstep the mark on privacy.

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