I have seen first-hand the vast benefits of data targeting and ad tracking. Time and money saved, relevant ads delivered to the right audiences, client goals achieved. It is also undeniable, especially in light of accusations surrounding Cambridge Analytica, that mass collection and harvesting of consumer data poses major risks that we are only beginning to consider. Complicating the matter, few consumers or lawmakers appear to have a strong understanding of what is happening behind the scenes. So let’s dig in.
We must all live under the assumption that comprehensive data profiles have been created about each of us by any number of companies. These profiles include who we are, where we travel, our finances and much more. It is also safe to assume that these profiles are regularly bundled, sold, connected together with other data sources and then sold again without our direct knowledge. They are then used for many different purposes including marketing and advertising, sales and political campaigns to name a few.
A portion of this data is available from public sources like government records or what we share publically online. Often we also give permission for corporations, websites, social networks, financial institutions, entertainment services, utilities, ecommerce sites and others to collect and share our information without entirely realizing it. This could come from signing up for a store loyalty program, taking advantage of a special financing offer, signing up for a subscription, taking part in a contest, installing software or many other actions that involve us signing a document or checking a consent form.
Data also comes from our electronic devices like phones, laptops, tablets and an increasing number of internet-connected devices. Many of these devices are constantly sharing our location along with other data that can be used to identify us.
A massive amount of our information is ripe for the taking. Data makes its way into the hands of people we never knew would have access to it.
Want to see what information exists about you in just one of these profiles? Visit aboutthedata and take a look.
In the past, discussions about this kind of data collection have largely focused on ad tracking and browser cookies. The limited scope hid a larger truth. These profiles are incredibly valuable to and increasingly utilized by all types of organizations including charities, law enforcement, intelligence agencies and political campaigns. Thanks to mobile devices and social media accounts that we never log out of, cookies play only a small role in providing this data.
What can be done? If consumers are concerned they can curtail some of this data collection. Privacy settings can be changed. App permissions restricted, unused accounts closed. It can be tedious and time-consuming but it is up to consumers to at least try to control what they are sharing.
Most importantly, consumers should proactively analyze and weigh the benefits of technology purchases. Anyone concerned about data collection by Facebook should invest ample consideration before, say, buying a smart speaker that places a live microphone in their home. Especially a speaker made by the very companies pioneering these data gathering techniques.
As a marketer, I see enormous benefits from using systems that take advantage of this data. For the work I do this information comes in aggregate and is anonymized. I don’t see individual faces or names. I see cohorts of people who share similar psychographics. This helps me target ads to the right people. With that said I, honestly cannot say that everyone accessing such data does so with these restrictions or with innocuous motives.
The cat is out of the bag, the genie has left the bottle and I cannot imagine any marketer, politician, law enforcement agency or other entity giving up access to this information. If consumers continue to voluntarily give their data over, I also don’t believe any of us should relinquish these tools. I do feel a responsibility to be informed about how this system works and to let consumers know why they should be paying attention.
That leaves me then with a final appeal. Take a moment to take some control of your data. Change permissions settings on services and applications. When presented with a document to sign in exchange for something, consider what you might be giving up in exchange for what you are being given. Ask yourself if the benefits of every technology tool you use outweigh the hidden costs. If that equation doesn’t favor you, move on and find something that will.