Wild West of Data: Ecommerce Data Protection and Social Media Privacy

Posted by Victoria Elizabeth 15 Jul 13

Online data protection and social media privacy have become hot topics around the world recently, as news continues to break about the ‘Wild West of Data’ that we are currently living in, and how companies are using big data to target customers and personalise their services without their knowledge. This is especially true of ecommerce, giving rise to data protection fears and issues around personalisation software. Navigating these privacy issues raises more questions than answers, so I sought out another expert who could shed light on where we are headed with this. 

Cowboys riding into sunsetLast week I took a trip up to the University of Cambridge to discuss the subject of Psychometrics, and social media privacy concerns, with the Operations Director of the Psychometrics Centre, Michal Kosinski. In addition to his responsibilities at the Centre, Michal is a Research Consultant for the Online Services and Advertising Group at Microsoft Research Cambridge. He is currently finishing up his PhD at Cambridge in Social Psychology, and writing his dissertation about how online social networks affect the corporate environment.  

Michal and I were able to discuss at length the growing concerns surrounding online privacy and the recent feather-ruffling news that companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and AT&T were secretly allowing government agencies on both sides of the Atlantic to access their users’ content. The NSA-led PRISM and UK-based TEMPORA programs have taken the idea of government spying out of the domain of conspiracy theory and into stark reality. This much is clear, but what comes with this pandora’s box?  

My questions to Michal centered around several related subjects that make up the crux of the privacy debate, which included how we should store our data, who should/n't have access to it, and what both marketers and consumers of social media could do to make companies like Facebook more transparent, while still remaining usable networking tools. We also talked specifically about personalisation software and how this will become integrated into more online services in the future.  

The news of government backdoor entries into users’ data broke at the same time as the publication of results from Michal’s collaborative project with Dr. David Stillwell and Dr. Thore Graepel, also of Cambridge, and the development of their Facebook app, myPersonality. The initial success of this basic personality-assessment questionnaire soon went viral, and became the basis for a predictive analysis of Facebook ‘Likes’ using their personality questionnaire as a comparison. The project eventually brought together over 150 research teams from around the world and 8 million Facebook users, who all donated their results to science. With incredible accuracy and insight, Kosinski et al. were able to predict very personal information about their participants, including their political leaning, sexual orientation, addictive habits, and religious affiliation, which was, mostly, information participants did not make explicit or public on Facebook. The implications of such predictive software are vast, and inherently tied into the commercial techniques companies are willing to utilise in order to target customers. 

Michal had much to say on the subject of social media privacy, and although his work revealed the risks associated with using social media sites like Facebook, he ultimately didn’t think it was necessary for people to stop using the service. (This may in part be because it’s futile. Facebook’s policy of keeping ‘shadow profiles’ of everyone using other people’s contact info means cancelling your account won’t erase your info). 

What he called for instead was that users of online services educate themselves about where their digital footprint is going, who is seeing it and how it is being stored. Interestingly, he believes there is no current reason why companies cannot allow users to encrypt and store their personal data on their own computers, and for companies to ask permission to access it. Perhaps this is a direction we should consider, but it also threatens companies’ abilities to use analytics software to track user activities for marketing and sales targeting. This growing trend is equally important to businesses looking to create more personalised experiences for their customers.  

On the subject of the future of personalisation in online services, Michal states that everything will soon be ultimately personalised: 

"Because of your digital footprint, your computer will know you better than your own mother, or better than you think you know yourself." 

This was the real meat and potatoes of the conversation, and one that had many insights and implications for both marketers and internet users. Imagine a future where your car starts when you leave home, the temperature and music inside it adjust to your heart rate and serotonin levels, and your GPS finds not only the best route to your destination, but maybe, if you’re not in a rush, a more scenic one too, as it knows you haven’t seen the ocean in 18.6 months. 

This doesn’t sound much like science fiction anymore, but to get there, big data has to play its part. So where do we go from here? Well the first place is user education, and marketers have a role to play here too. Everyone who becomes an online service user should know where their digital footprint is being left, but ecommerce companies, and marketers especially, need to begin forming relationships with visitors to their websites that complement both business transparency and user privacy. After all, if Facebook gives a little in the way of transparency and user control of data, perhaps users will hand over their information more willingly and share more widely than before. And just maybe this is the clearest way to civilise the 'Wild West of data' in which we now find ourselves. 


Read the full interview HERE


Topics: Industry Trends, Data Analysis

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