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Big Data – Has Marketing joined the Dark Side?

Kim Brebach - Thursday, September 05, 2013

Big Data - how Big Brother knows everhing about you

Big Data or Big Brother?

Big Data is one of those terms that suddenly appeared on everyone’s lips. Did you miss that crucial moment when you could still ask what it meant without people giving you strange looks? We’re here to help, because the Big Data industry does a lousy job explaining what Big Data is and what the fuss is about.

Simply put, Big Data exceeds the processing capacity of conventional database systems. It’s either too big, changes too fast or doesn’t fit the way your database is organised. Think of Google, the world’s largest advertising company with annual revenues approaching $40 billion. Google knows many of our habits, but sifting through data on a billion users to drill down to individual habits is a monumental task. This is where Big Data analysis comes in.

From Birth to Death

Google knows all about us, that’s how it can present ads to us that reflect our buying habits when we visit various websites. How does Google know? Through tracking cookies, the tiny footprints we leave on our travels around the internet, and the device ID info of the computer we’re using. Over time, Google collects a huge amount of data about us, so does Facebook and so do many of our favourite websites.

‘A child born in 2012 will leave a data footprint detailed enough to assemble a day-by-day, even a minute-by-minute, account of his or her entire life, online and offline, from birth until death … ,’ writes Mark Sullivan in PCWorld. ‘Virtually every piece of personal information that you provide online will end up being bought and sold, segmented, packaged, analysed, repackaged, and sold again.’

You have no Secrets

Charles Duhigg in the New York Times wrote about how analysts in the predictive data department of Target worked out how to use the customer data they’d accumulated to predict when female customers had fallen pregnant (and would need baby products), often before their families knew. The women’s buying patterns changed – suddenly they bought different body lotions and supplements like calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Target is not alone in using customer data this way: most large B2C companies now have predictive analysis sections that comb through the data they hold about us, and they may well buy additional data from other sources. Of course, all that information is useless unless there’s a way to analyse it and extract usable intelligence from it. That’s where advanced analytics come in.

There’s no place to hide

In contrast to the traditional economy, the ‘personal data economy’ is booming: search engines, social networks, advertisers, marketers, ad networks, website hosting services and data brokers all buy, sell, and trade personal data. Facebook’s business is aggregating the personal data its users provide. Facebook uses all that personal data to help advertisers their target ads.

Often the boundaries are stretched: recently it was reported that Facebook had allowed companies to turn users’ ‘likes’ into advertisements sent to their own online friends. Facebook also admitted that it scans conversations for evidence of criminal behaviour, while Twitter, Apple and other mobile app makers stand accused of uploading user address books without their permission.

Do No Evil

The founders of Google famously promised us that their only ambition was to help shape a better world. Recently, it was caught gathering private data such as email, web searches and photographs from unsecured home WiFi networks as part of its Street View program. Google was also caught circumventing the privacy settings in Apple’s Safari web browser, and is about to cop a multi-million dollar fine from the Federal Trade Commission.

The Guardian reports that ‘a suit filed in May by Consumer Watchdog claims Google “unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people’s private email messages”. It quotes Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”

The suit claims that ‘Unbeknown to millions of people, on a daily basis and for years, Google has systematically and intentionally crossed the ‘creepy line’ to read private email messages containing information you don’t want anyone to know, and to acquire, collect, or mine valuable information from that mail.’

Marketing and advertising are competitive disciplines, but surely we can keep it on the clean side of creepy. Effective marketing requires trust, and once we burn that trust we burn bridges that are going to be hard to rebuild. In a recent piece headed ‘Learning to Hate Big Tech,’ Time Magazine asked the obvious question: ‘Is big tech replacing the big banks and Wall Street as the corporate villains du jour?’


Additional Resources

Big Data: Why All The Fuss?


Data Snatchers! The Booming Market for Your Online Identity


How Companies Learn Your Secrets


Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember, I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm pretty good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic. 

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