Big Data and privacy

Earlier this week, I gave a talk on the way that "Big Data" is underpinned with a kind of myth about how users trade privacy for services. Ciara Byrne from the NYT's VentureBeat interviewed me afterwards about it. I think she did a really good job of condensing a hard, nuanced question into a brief and informative article.


  1. Social media sites are, in effect, double- or triple-dipping. They sell us premium bits, sell our eyeballs to advertisers, trade our content to each other, and sell the information skimmed from the content to yet other parties.

    I wonder what the value would be if you tried to do this all with money. How much would people ask to be paid to produce N blog posts a day, spend X hours looking at ads, give Y information about their movements to anyone wanting to know?

    1. @paul, Interesting POV, though if you start charging for the content you add, then someone will start charging for the content you view.  I think we all got what we wanted – and open internet.  It’s just open for those doing analysis on your transactions as well.

      Still the Wild West in my mind…..

      1. I wasn’t considering charging (just yet) but rather getting a sense of how much that unrecognized labor might be worth. As an analogy, think of the analyses of what it would cost to hire the services stereotypically performed by a wife in a patriarchal marriage. It’s a good counterbalance to the common drivel about online services being free.

  2. Part of the argument in the article is that people don’t understand the dangers, so they’re not afraid. I personally find the collection of data via social media so scary PRECISELY BECAUSE we don’t fully understand its dangers. The stories we’ve had so far (firings over things done on Facebook, etc) are just the beginning.

    The idea that any one person could hold that detailed a dossier on what I’ve done is shocking. I’m sure if you suggested to people that the government knew that much about their behaviour, they’d be shocked and outraged. Somehow because it’s “just Facebook”, they’re not worried.

  3. While I’m thinking about it, I was talking to a friend of mine who works in customer insight the other day, who said that his company (a large financial services company here in the UK) developed a model based on their clients’ interactions (ie, where they used their credit and debit cards, and how frequently). For example, they could easily tell when people had had kids – they’d start shopping at Mothercare. Eventually the model could predict with 94% accuracy whether the customer would renew their home insurance that year.

    But at least companies like that don’t sell on your information – they keep it in-house, have a huge regulatory pressure to protect it, and only use it to target their own products and services (I don’t know about elsewhere but in the UK, being opt out of “third-party information sharing” is a requirement under the Data Protection Act).

    On the other hand, Facebook is now collecting all that information about you and more, and their business model is to sell (direct or indirect) access to that information. But people still look at me strangely when I try to explain that I “don’t really use Facebook” for this reason.

    Anyone got a good 30-second story to illustrate why this is a terrible idea? I’m going to try the getting-guys-back-onto-Facebook one, but it doesn’t have a scary enough punchline, I don’t think.

    1. @boingboing-0833934dfe26f8a8e7cdb06bef88d0de:disqus , I worked for a firm about seven years ago that was doing behavioral analysis on transaction streams for banks and financial institutions.  What you say is true that at the time they were using it more to see which of their customers were more profitable and which may have been less so based on their activities. 

      The Big Data issue from a discovery point-of-view is moot in my mind.  If the data goes into the pot, then expect it to be analyzed in the same way.  Heck, even responding to posts like these allow us to be tracked to some extent.  Try cranking up NoScript ( in your  browser and you’ll be shocked at how many scripts are active even on this site, most of which are collecting data. 

      We choose to put as much in as we want and we’ve been conditioned to believe it’s OK.  I also do not have a FB account for the same reasons as you and it’s getting tougher and tougher to not be thought of as a dinosaur by my peers.

Comments are closed.