Thursday, 9 July 2015

Algorithmic Big Brother

There's a lot of FUD about internet companies harvesting personal data.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a privacy advocate: you should have the right to be as private as you like, and whatever data that is held about you by a third party should be disclosed to you, and accessible on request.

But let's not put the tin hats on every time we hear that Tech Firm X is harvesting your data. I'm sure they are, but ask yourself why. Google and Facebook aren't interested in my secrets. They are interested in

  1. Selling my profile info to advertisers
  2. Providing me a better service so that I keep coming back and they can satisfy (1).
You'll agree that point 2 is innocent/benign enough. If you have a fundamental problem with entities selling info to advertisers then stop buying things and stop using 'free' services. If you're not the paying customer, you're the product. Get used to it.

The issue, and where the media like to blur and sensationalise, is the definition of 'my profile info'. What info are they collating & selling, and what are they doing with it? This is where things get shady. The quick answer these firms all give, when asked, is a variant of point 2 above: that the data is used to offer better-targeted advertising and services to you the cust- consumer.

Right, but what data, exactly? And how are you packaging it up to the advertisers to whom you're selling it? The answer, in most cases, is that they are not selling the information like a secret service dossier - a big brown file on you. They are simply categorising you. The advertisers then say what categories they want to target, which could be broad (all females between 18 and 30) or very specific (chess players and sci fi fans in New York city under the age of 24). These firms then ensure you get hit by those adverts that match your category. They then track which ones you click and which you don't, and that gets reported back to the advertisers. In fact, in the case of social networks, these firms track every unsecured page that you browse and refine your categorisations accordingly.

Point is, the advertisers don't get the specific info about you. They get aggregated category data. Heineken don't know which beer I drink unless I tell them (by 'liking' or '+ing' a page of theirs); they just know that I'm in several of their key categories.

The categorising tech firms are as interested in me as a lawnmower is in grass. They don't have time/resources to compile a dossier on you or me. They have algorithms that profile us automatically and constantly, but primarily in order to meet the 2 commercial imperatives above.

So if you're worried about Google or Facebook or Apple prying into your private life, only the algorithms are watching.

Government agencies?  Different story: why would they be harvesting your data? Again, it's mostly algorithms, but there's no commercial imperative. So it's definitely personal and potentially nefarious. 

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