Technology, social media in particular, has pushed the boundaries of the limits of privacy over the course of the past decade. Networks like Facebook and Twitter, when used by people who generously share personal information, have taken the fun and mystery out of getting to know people in the traditional way. Though Facebook has helped law enforcement officials catch criminals, the careless use of Twitter has had a reverse effect. People who have mentioned on Twitter that they were on vacation have been victimized by burglars capitalizing on the opportunity to rob their homes during their absence. The social media–aided theft isn’t limited to traditional methods either; publishing your date of birth on a publicly accessible Facebook page is easy bait for identity thieves and hackers who can use this information when they attempt to discover the password for your account. The advent of Facebook’s Timeline feature, and the over-sharing that comes with it, can cause a Facebook user to think about the acronym TMI (“Too much information”) and how the word “timeline” can’t be spelled without its letters.
It's safe to say that technology comes with positives and negatives, like many things in life. The aforementioned examples are symbolic of this dichotomy, yet seem to be minor compared to the growing impact of Big Data.
The New Frontier
Parisian professor and marketing executive Frédéric Josué, who recently traveled across the Atlantic to speak on a panel at the University of Southern California, is someone who believes the reality of Big Data should be approached with caution. Many involved in marketing welcome the detailed information about consumers available thanks to Big Data, which was first defined by Meta Group's Doug Laney in 2001 as data sets where the velocity, variety, and volume of the data are too expansive and complex to be managed via traditional methods. Yet Josué, who teaches media courses at the Institut de Sciences Politique de Paris and leads marketing initiatives at Havas Media France, believes that personal privacy should be respected in the midst of this data grab.
"Marketing directors have been using private data for commercial purposes since the 1970s, but the Internet has disrupted the playing field. This was mainly because of the interconnection (between consumer behavior and marketing decisions) made possible by the data, its sheer quantity and the way it could be utilized by marketers," said Josué, who shared his marketing expertise on April 4, 2013 at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism Innovation Lab’s annual Innovation Summit.
Frédéric Josué shares the marketing insight he gains at his day job at Havas Media France with university students at Institut de Sciences Politique de Paris. Photo: Frédéric Josué
Sign of the Times
Josue's fellow Frenchman Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian famously celebrated the merits of being discreet in the 18th century by coining the phrase "pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés" ("to live happily, live hidden"). Nowadays, Josué is wary of how technology in the Big Data era has made it increasingly difficult for people to preserve their privacy.
"IP addresses, cookies, data issued through RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, geolocation data and shopping data stored on bank cards can tell everything about an individual," said Josué, who is particularly concerned about the way sensitive data is manipulated by companies using a “by any means necessary” philosophy when it comes to increasing their revenue.
"This data can lead to discrimination, such as in regards to health profiles. We have already seen last year (in Charles Duhigg's New York Times article "How Companies Learn Your Secrets") how a huge retail store predicted its teenage customer was pregnant by analyzing the items she purchased and then sent many advertisements for maternity and baby products by mail (which were intercepted by her father, who was understandably shocked)."
Business intelligence firm DOMO's Big Data infographic published in June 2012 illustrates how data is constantly created. Photo: DOMO.com
Though there have been disturbing examples of how personal data is used, some companies are starting to implement policies that help people maintain their privacy. Mozilla has added a "Do Not Track" (DNT) feature to its popular browser Firefox in order to help people use the Internet without worrying about being tracked by means like the aforementioned cookies. According to a blog post on the Mozilla Privacy blog published a few weeks ago on May 3 by Alex Fowler, Mozilla's Global Privacy and Public Policy Leader, just 17 percent of Firefox users in the United States use DNT so far. He also pointed out that 11 percent of Firefox's overall global user base uses DNT and that Mozilla estimates these users send over 135 million DNT signals daily.
Mozilla Firefox's online dashboard for its Do Not Track feature includes a world map illustrating the countries that use DNT the most and least (ranging from dark green to light green, respectively). Photo: Blog.Mozilla.org
The questions going forward seem to be on opposite sides of the same coin. How will people regulate their discretion (or lack thereof) when it comes to sharing their personal information? And how will companies self-regulate in regards to not crossing boundaries revolving around the sensitive data they obtain from people? In other words, will their decisions be most influenced by morality or money?
One thing is certain: people can empower themselves by being careful about sharing their personal data, especially through mobile devices and websites. Reading the fine print when downloading a smartphone or tablet application that asks for security permissions (such as those related to geolocation) and making sure to understand the privacy settings of social media websites are good starting points.
Josué also believes that people should take the time to fully understand the impact of their actions and ask themselves how they will manage their personal information, which is essentially impossible to retract once it is shared.
"This question involves our descendants and we will be judged (in the future) in light of our big decisions. More than ever, considering the power that control of this information (that is shared) will be able to give, society should take some time for reflection,” said Josué.
“The irreversibility of our actions is the main danger."
Elias Kamal Jabbe is a Los Angeles-based Journalist and PR Specialist and the Founder of Multicultural Matters, an online media outlet focused on multiculturalism and international entrepreneurship. Feel free to connect with him via LinkedIn or Twitter.com/Elias213 for more information.