How big data knows more about you than your own family

Most of us are aware that all of our online movements are recorded- every keyboard stroke or mouse click can be traced. Now that we use smartphones for just about everything, a whole minefield of data is being created detailing our daily movements- every txt message, location search, sent email and online purchase is being recorded. What is being done with all this information?

In the advertising and marketing industry, big data is being used to target consumers when they’re most open to suggestion. In America last year, Target sent a teenage girl vouchers for baby clothes and maternity wear. Her father was angered and complained to store management, however had to retract the complaint after discovering his daughter was in fact pregnant (read more).

How did Target know? As explained in ABC’s The Checkout, Target had analysed the shopping records of women on their baby shower registry to determine products women tend to buy when they’re pregnant. They used this data to send out perfectly timed sales offers, even able to guess approximate due dates.

ImageScreen grab from The Checkout: Data Mining. 

This is just one example of many intimate things big data can tell about you. According to The Checkout, companies can predict when you’re moving house, about to graduate, thinking about buying a new car… and that’s just from your purchase history and the information you give out through loyalty programs and other competitions. Pair this with the goldmine of personal information stored on your smartphone, and modern companies have got a pretty good picture of who they want to market to. To make things even more complicated, any number of companies share your information with other third parties.

“It’s great to get advertising that’s particularly relevant to you, but now that companies know more about you and your behaviour than you could possibly imagine, they target you when you’re at your most vulnerable or open to suggestion. It’s not that you’re getting the best products- you’re getting the best marketed products.”
Dr Paul Harrison, Senior Lecturer in consumer behaviour at Deakin University

Just how much information is being stored on us? German politician and data activist Malte Spitz asked his mobile phone operator to share the information it had stored about him. After the company refused, he filed a lawsuit against them, and after the court ruled in his favour, he was sent 35,830 lines of code — “a detailed, nearly minute-by-minute account of half a year of his life” (Ted 2012). If the worst that people could do with your information was advertise specific products to you, you’d be forgiven for not getting too alarmed. However, when we start to consider the possibilities of big data use, it gets a little more scary. Malte Spitz handed over the data on himself to a German Newspaper, which was able to use the data to create a map of the past six months of his life. Paired with online data from Spitz’s twitter, this map detailed exactly where he had been and who had had contacted.

Who is using this data and for what? What could this data potentially be used for?

Of course, many legitimate arguments can be made for this usefulness of big data. It can be used to predict accidents, prevent medical emergencies- according to John C Havens, founder of the Happathon project, an application exists that can predict if someone is going to have a heart attack and sends them an email 6 hours beforehand. Haven’s organisation uses big data to create digital tools that drive global contentment. However, whatever the possibilities of big data, as users of digital communication technologies, we need to be more aware of what information we send out about ourselves.

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