Tuesday, November 20, 2012

unConference Session: Big Data and Privacy

This is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart. Over the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of companies in the digital advertising and marketing space and big data and privacy are constant topics of thought and discussion.

Of all the sessions I participated in this was the most lively and engaging (so engaging, in fact, that I neglected to get any photos – which isn’t like me at all).

The big theme here was concern. People felt it’s clear there’s going to be more and more data out there, coming from more and more sources and devices and analyzed and used in ways we haven’t even imagined. As the volume of data and its use accelerates privacy is only going to become a bigger issue.

Dealing with the issue of data and privacy presents a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs and technologists.

Participants were asked what they thought was behind what was described as an “immunity” to privacy concerns. The answer from most was that it’s a generational thing. People for whom the Internet has been present for their whole lives seem less concerned that older people who give more thought to security.

An interesting variation was that it also depended on where people were from. One person asked, “What’s the cost of failure? If my credit card is compromised it’s fast and easy to shut it down.” Several disagreed with this attitude, suggesting that Europeans who had lived or known people who had lived in surveillance states were more likely to be careful than Americans. Others pointed out that in despotic countries even today privacy could become an issue of life of death. All were good points.

While at some point there may be a catastrophic event that forces everyone to rethink their attitude toward privacy, there’s no impetus to change. In fact, we’re being trained and encouraged to share more and more. One participant made the point that Facebook has made everyone more comfortable with sharing information about themselves. The fact that there’s only a “Like” button reinforces people’s willingness to share more and additional information.

And all that data is being put to work by marketers. Retargeting was mentioned as one use for this data and another participant observed that more data equals better conversion. But this, people thought, was just the low-hanging fruit. There’s movement in the market – around algorithms and analytics – that will allow data to be analyzed and used more easily.

An important issue around data ownership came up. Who owns the data about us that we’ve put out in public channels? Who has control of the data? Who can extract value from our personal data that’s in public? Who owns the analysis of the data, or the connections and inferences that can be drawn from it? These are big questions that haven’t been answered at this point. Someone suggested we may see new laws and regulations – which is probably true – but how these will look or be implemented is still unknown.

As regulations were discussed, a participant mentioned that attempts to protect privacy couple be a threat to innovation. This sparked an interesting discussion that led to questions around the difference between privacy and identity. A woman from the Internet Society confessed that internally they refer to big data as identifying data – and that there’s no real way for data to remain private. There’s just too much out there that can be connected in too many ways.

The idea that there’s a value exchange – access for information – was brought up. The problem is that this exchange is not explicit. Consumers may be getting things they want and value – or ads and offers that are relevant to them – but there’s not direct or clear connection to their personal information. There’s an opportunity to change that in ways that could empower consumers by giving them a chance to offer their data to marketers – at a cost – when they’re looking for specific products or services.

This led to a discussion about user-centric identity management. An interesting idea but many wondered if this is something the average citizen should have to worry about. Several people suggested there needed to be some places – and some types of data – that are private. Medical information was offered as an example.

As part of this discussion, a participant mentioned that there are already ways to function anonymously online, even ways to shop without giving out too much information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was suggested as a good privacy resource. It’s good to know there are resources out there since the conversation ended with some extra creepy examples from participants of some of the ways data is being collected and used today:

At Fenway, a fan that made his way from the luxury boxes to the Monster Seats to the grandstands and back to the luxury boxes was approached by security because facial recognition software had identified him in multiple places.

At Zuccotti Park, facial recognition was used to identify apparent Occupy leaders for “tactical extraction” 

As Brazil prepares for the World Cup and Olympics, police officers are being equipped with helmet-mounted cameras, heads-up displays in their face shields and augmented reality capabilities to identify with icons people that may be problematic.

The panel ended on these dystopian notes – but also with the hope that people can exercise some control over their data and privacy. As long as it isn’t already too late.

Greg Peverill-Conti, Vice President, InkHouse
Happy husband, glad dad, communicator, content creator, photographer of faces and all around good guy.

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