Big Data and Online Profiling

As we enter into a new data-intensive society, where are we headed?  What can “big data” do for society?  We have seen examples of how big data is revolutionizing science across multiple fields.  I encourage you to think about the raw data, whether it’s in the form of numbers, videos, or written text.  Big data allows us to look at the relationships between these data-driven entities.  Furthermore, uncovering these relationships enables us to draw new conclusions concerning how humans inhabit the world.  Through these discovery processes, we can learn how to use the data around us more efficiently every day, but is this always a good thing?

Data mining the available data has enabled us to uncover information about ourselves that we never knew existed.  For example, increasing storage capacities has allowed companies to hold information and create a user “profile” from the information they gather.  From the profiles, companies can group individuals with similar online activity hoping to uncover user “likes” and “dislikes”.  These groups then help companies make conclusions on which advertisements to display to the specific users.  TIME Magazine’s Joel Stein remarks about the existing errors as companies try to tailor advertisements based on the collective information they have about a particular individual, “Google’s Ads Preferences believes I’m a guy interested in politics, Asian food, perfume, celebrity gossip, animated movies and crime but who doesn’t care about “books & literature” or “people & society.” (So not true.) Yahoo! has me down as a 36-to-45-year-old male who uses a Mac computer and likes hockey, rap, rock, parenting, recipes, clothes and beauty products” [1].  Google and Yahoo have made different conclusions about the same individual, both of which displease the user.

In order to address online profiling and advertisement targeting now available through the easiness of manipulating big data, society must create new ethical policies to deal with this data.  We must establish ground rules for what’s acceptable and open information online and what should remain private.  Individuals may start to feel violated as online depicts them as a person that they are not (as demonstrated by Stein above).  Consequently, new advertisement companies are developing in order to address such problems we are now seeing online regarding big data and online profiling.  For example, data-mining companies (Datalogix) have started projects to re-do the click stream algorithms implemented by Google page rank, and such companies have found ways to more effectively target advertisements to specific audiences [2].  Even if companies find ways to create a more accurate profile of individuals based on their online activity, does that make it okay to use this information to their advantage?  Or, is it still a violation of privacy to online users?

Big data has opened the doors to much discussion about the future of information and online usage.  It has allowed us to advantageously track and record numbers to create a questionably more enjoyable online experience, but where are the lines drawn? From here, and taking all of the capabilities of ubiquitous information into account, I think we need to educate online users of how companies are using their information.  This would be a start so that we can still benefit from the gains big data brings without violating online user’s personal information or sense of online identity.




About cbaughma

Senior at University of Michigan studying Informatics: Data Mining & Information Analysis
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2 Responses to Big Data and Online Profiling

  1. Desmond Kolean-Burley says:

    Cara, I couldn’t agree with you more–this, actually, was the topic of my term paper. I couldn’t believe the lack of publicity these data mining companies, also called data brokers, have received. I’m also shocked how little people seem to care that their personal information is systematically collated and sold to advertising companies. The largest enabler of this privacy transgression, in my opinion, is Facebook.

    Facebook has recently become the world’s largest data broker, teaming up with the company you mentioned, Datalogix. Facebook began testing the potency of targeted advertising on the site this past summer by targeting a specific demographic and recorded the users who viewed the advertisement. In order to demonstrate the efficacy of targeted advertising on the social networking site, Facebook compared which users actually saw their test advertisements with which users in this targeted group purchased the product. They accomplished this by working in conjunction with Datalogix, a data-mining company that collects sales information from physical retail stores. Of the 50 different advertisements Facebook tested, roughly 70% of the time every dollar spent on advertising resulted in three dollars in sales. This means that Facebook is extremely skilled in targeting users demographics–either people would’ve purchased the product anyway without seeing the advertisement or they purchased it because the advertisement let them know what the product was and where they could acquire it.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t Facebook’s only transgression of users’ privacy. In 2010, Facebook allowed its third-party applications to sell data they acquired when a user or his friends sign up for the application. In the ball-park of a few hundred million users’ information was being sold to data brokers. Many users do not understand how third-party applications acquire their information. If you sign up for an application, you release all of your “publicly available” information to the third-party. In addition, your information is shared with a third-party when ANY of your friends signs up for a third-party application by the default settings.

    If you’re interested in changing these settings follow these steps:
    – Navigate to
    – Sign in
    – Click the downward arrow in the upper-right hand corner of the screen
    – Select “Privacy Settings”
    – Click “Edit Settings” next to “Ads, Apps and Websites”
    – Click “Edit Settings” next to “How People Bring Your Info to Apps they Use”
    – Deselect all the information you don’t wish to be shared with any third-party apps your friends sign up for

    Cara, you’re right in terms of what needs to happen. Companies need to make a much greater effort to promote transparency in how they use your data. I recommend the K-12 education system teach students how to maintain their privacy online as well.

    • kristenmayer says:

      The Facebook study you bring up is interesting… as someone who does not pay much attention to online ads (however targeted they may be), I am surprised that every dollar spent on advertising was earned back in 70% of cases. Although I suppose I still fit into the “would have purchased the product anyway without seeing the advertisement” category.

      Ultimately, though, I also agree that these companies need to be much more transparent about what data they are collecting, and what they plan to do with the data. I’m sure there are people who don’t know the extent to which their information is being collected and shared (or don’t know that it is being collected at all).

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