Have you ever had a moment when you’re chatting casually with friends about a dream vacation to Iceland and the next day your Facebook and Instagram are full of ads for Iceland? This happens to me far too often. One moment I’ll be sitting on the couch with a friend talking about needing a new vacuum, the next, we’re watching Hulu when a vacuum advertisement comes on. Creepy or coincidence? Makes one wonder– are our devices listening to us? While I’m not prepared to travel down the rabbit hole of conspiracies, there is definitely something going on behind the scenes of big data, and it’s getting a little scary.
Meet Big Data
Until a few years back you may have never heard of Cambridge Analytica– a reality this company used to their advantage. They’re the ones behind the Facebook data leak and less famously, worked on the Trump Campaign and Brexit to target Facebook users with a slew of misinformation and propaganda. Now, I’m not here to get political, not in that sense at least. I bring up Cambridge Analytica for one specific reason– data mining.
It’s a phrase we commonly hear in this data-driven world. It sounds mysterious but also straight forward– collecting information for businesses to serve customers better. It’s all about the customer experience, we’re told. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos adamantly instills the phrase, “customer obsession”, within Amazon. It’s part of a culture he promotes to always be looking out for the customer. Always making things better for the customer. Obsessively so. But there’s one thing they’re really obsessed with when it comes to customers– their data.
Like Cambridge Analytica did before they were shut down, Amazon makes a huge profit from user data. They’re not alone. Many big corporations are looking for our data to either use to make a higher profit or to sell to the highest bidder. No wonder, in 2018 data overtook oil as the most valuable resource in our world. That fact should scare us all.
What Our Data Is Used For
Here’s the deal. I don’t mind going on Instagram and seeing ads catered specifically to me. It’s a little refreshing actually being interested in what’s being shown to me instead of another Cialis commercial. What I do mind is when my data is being sold to political groups, leaked by hackers or being used to experiment with. In a company presentation, Cambridge Analytica touted they have over 5000 data points on every individual in the US. This is the data they used to target political campaigns throughout the years and the data they “mined” to sell to others.
Amazon may not be as political with the use of our data, but every purchase and search is used to better their own platform for sales for themselves. Beyond that, their voice assistant Alexa stores your data as well. Brian Huseman, the vice president of public policy at Amazon, wrote this in response to privacy concerns: “We do not store the audio of Alexa’s response. However, we may still retain other records of customers’ Alexa interactions, including records of actions Alexa took in response to the customer’s request.” The ambiguity of which information Alexa may retain and what Amazon will use it for is dangerous. Ask Amazon for a record of all the data they have on you and you’ll find there’s no way they’ll give it to you. With all this data being collected, we deserve to not only know what is being collected but how it’s being used.
Data– The Fight Of Our Future
We’ve just recently entered a new age of information. Only for the last few decades has the internet been available to the masses and only within the last 15 years did we decide to upload our lives onto social media. We’ve almost voluntarily given out our lives to the big tech companies to play around with. Now we’re faced with giant data companies that are using our data with no regard to our privacy and security. With an increasing number of massive data leaks, unethical uses, and storage of our information, we have to act immediately.
While we may never be able to stop data mining, what we can do is curb the damage. On a legal front, we have to make all our data available for us to access and see, like a credit report. We also must make it illegal to provide this data mining for political reasons. On the technological front, our data use needs to be untied from as many sources as possible. There are already Apps and websites that delete your data after a certain time frame, and yet others that give you full control of how your data is managed. We need to look to every avenue to fix this, else we face a grim future with our information in the hands of the richest and most powerful. Sounds like a dystopian novel I would like to read rather than live through.