The battle between privacy and commercial opportunity

From the debacle over SOPA and PIPA bills to complaints about privacy infringement by both Facebook’s Timeline and Google’s new privacy policy, control over personal user data stored by the internet titans is one of the most pressing issues of this online age.

Data is rapidly becoming the most valuable commodity on the internet, as users’ web habits are layered over each other to create ever more complex models for targeted marketing. By analysing patterns of a user’s habits on a social network or search engine, advertising can be tailored to better match personal preferences, greatly enhancing its effectiveness. Facebook, whose IPO raised $16bn earlier this year, and Google, home of the world’s most visited site and other equally popular services such as youtube, are two heavyweights of this industry. The companies are said to be locked in a data war, increasingly leveraging more user information to attract higher advertising revenues, and both have come under fire in early 2012 over their inability to protect the data of their users.

Facebook’s release of its Timeline service, earlier in the year, makes it possible to view a user’s entire history, including comments dating back to the inception of an account. While it does not expose any more information than was previously available on its traditional profile page, the company’s decision to make the service compulsory for its users has been greatly criticised.
Similarly, Google’s new privacy policy, unveiled also at the beginning of 2012, homogenises user data across its multiple services such as search, email, geo-location, google+ and youtube. According to the company, it is meant to provide ‘a simpler, more intuitive Google experience’ yielding more relevant search data. Users cannot opt out of the policy, and because of that it has come under considerable criticism from organisations such as The Open Rights Group (ORG).

This past week the company demonstrated just what it meant by ‘simpler and more intuitive’ search by unveiling its Google Now service as part of its Android operating system update, Jelly Bean. The service utilises user data to provide more accurate search data, sometimes volunteering the information prior to a request being made, for example by providing up-to-date match results to a user with a history of sports related searches without the need to actually ask. The system even attempts to guess what teams you support. Reactions in the tech community have been positive if a little wary, best exemplified by John C. Dvorak, a blogger for PCMag, who described it as “startling, invasive, creepy, amazing, useful, foreboding, and desirable, all in one”.

By slowly redrawing the boundaries, Facebook and Google are in effect sacrificing user control and consent in favour of streamlining user experience and efficiency. In practice, this makes for an ever enhanced service, one where information flows effortlessly. As Google Now is demonstrating, such functionality can be mesmerising. However, such stealthy ‘homogenisation’ of privacy is a way of life in today’s age. Many of the 800 million active accounts on Facebook share personal pictures and information about users’ lives with acquaintances and relative strangers, a feat which would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. While this has improved services to the end user, the commercial benefits to these companies are staggering, simplifying and enhancing their ability to monetise the data they gather from their customers.

While there is clearly no need for alarm (after all, it is common to target marketing based on personal preferences in the offline world), these developments certainly demand awareness, information and careful supervision. From using your GPS location to show restaurants your friends recommend to tailoring advertising to your lifestyle, personal data convergence is a powerful tool, one that, like all tools, requires responsible wielding and adequate safeguards.

The unequalled data sets generated by what has become our daily life, offer corporations unequalled opportunities. It is important that Research and insight companies around the world are bound by stringent regulations regarding the use of personal data – ensuring that no company, regardless of size, towers so tall that they stand above regulation.

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