The Big Data steamroller continues to gain momentum through adoption of the technology by the world’s largest companies, as well as many data-centric start-ups. The lure of big data comes from collecting ever increasing volumes of data, at ever-increasing rates, with unparalleled variety (transactional data, unstructured data like social media, sensor data from wearables, etc.), enabling enterprises to know more about their customers and prospective customers than ever before. Massive amounts of data, along with the help of smart algorithms, allow companies to anticipate what people will want to buy via highly focused recommender systems, a technology that serves to expand revenue for online merchants.
What can stop the big data gravy train? In my opinion, the only thing that can put a damper on companies using data to exact out more revenue is public pushback in the form of concerns over privacy. Consumers are reading about misuse of personal data and massive breaches on a regular basis. Before Target made news for a data security breach that’s estimated to involve 110 million consumers’ credit cards and debit cards, the company received a lot of attention for its big data driven campaign to identify pregnant customers through an analysis of consumers’ purchases at its stores, a so-called “pregnancy score.” Target was able to calculate, not only whether a consumer was pregnant, but also when the baby was due. It used the information to win the expectant mother’s loyalty by offering coupons tailored to her stage of pregnancy. It was never clear that Target sold its pregnancy predictor score or lists of pregnant customers to third parties. But instances like this tend to fuel the public’s awareness of how big data operates and how it can assault personal privacy.
There may be a breaking point approaching where the average consumer shouts out “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” As the famous line from the movie Network indicates, there could erupt a point of no return for companies collecting personal consumer data for their own self-serving benefit.
New technology leaders like Private.me stand in prime position to pick up the pieces once this breaking point happens. Giving the user control over their personal information will resonate with the growing legions of consumers who have concerns about their most sensitive information being collected and stored in individual profiles and used for purposes that they do not know about and therefore cannot control.
Few can argue that big data technology is transforming our lives. Its benefits have become part of our daily routine. Google Now makes sure we’re on schedule. Tripadvisor plans our travel. Holidays and birthdays are celebrated on Facebook. Our family pictures appear on Instagram. And this could be just the start of a highly connected future. Our automobiles basically are computers with tires. Wearable medical devices notify others when we’re sick. Our connected refrigerator soon will tell use when it’s time to order more vegetables. But these transformative technologies yield an enormous amount of information about us. Estimates of the volume of data we collectively generate for others to analyze are staggering.
It’s true that there is positive benefit to the average consumer by letting companies use, for example, recommender systems to offer cross-sell and up-sell products and services – a process that could realistically save you time and effort. Amazon and Netflix are just two examples of companies that have become large and famous through collecting data on customers likes and dislikes in order to quickly and automatically present you with product ideas.
At the same time, we should all be concerned about the use of deeply sensitive personal information to make decisions about consumers, outside a legal apparatus that would provide notice and an opportunity to challenge the accuracy of the data. Similarly, we should be concerned about the risk that such sensitive personal information may fall into the wrong hands through a data breach. Even more fundamentally, we should be concerned about the damage that is done to our sense of privacy and autonomy in a society in which information about some of the most sensitive aspects of our lives is available for analysis without our knowledge or consent, and for anyone to buy if they are willing to pay the prevailing price.
The next few years shall prove critical to the direction of big data – will consumers give companies a pass on this issue in order to receive the benefits to their online lives, or will they mount a growing protest and lead companies to adopt “forgetful” technology like Private.me? Only time will tell.