There’s a famous saying, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Recently at SXSW, Julian Assange said via a video conference – “People are products sold to advertisers”.
Can you remember the Motorolla Razr, the iMac G3 computer, and dial up internet? The power of technology and its application within the world have expanded into a global phenomenon. Some big questions arise — What data are companies collecting? What data is the government taking? How is our information being bought and sold? What does our digital footprint look like? Why is our privacy so important?
The term “big data” may seem simple in its origins, but in practice its connotations are extremely complex. Data is a term that we, as consumers, have learned to accept. Big data, as referred to by McKinsey, “is datasets whose size is beyond the ability of a typical database software tools to capture, store, manage, and analyze” (McKinsey 1). The sheer volume of data is a global phenomenon. Our motions are tracked on a global scale by companies that produce thousands of reports based on our likes, dislikes, personal interactions, and habits. Many people are suspicious of big data, as many believe that it has invaded on our personal privacy, but many studies show that big data has and will continue to be a big part of our world.
“Many pioneering companies are already using big data to create value, and others need to explore how they can do the same if they are to compete” (McKinsey 2). Organizations in many different industries can leverage big data to increase productivity, innovate, create, and envision. It can also help consumers benefit through brand transparency and accountability. Data has initiated a race within the competitive marketplace around the world “becoming a key way for leading companies to outperform their peers” (McKinsey 6). Ultimately, big data has created brand value.
Non-technologically oriented people do not understand what tracking, data, or the Internet is. I once asked someone “what is the first thing you think of when I say the word ‘internet’?” They responded, “Google”. Google is a search engine. A search engine is a tool that takes the vast expanse of the Internet, organizing and categorizing it so that we as consumers have better access to all information stored. Google uses tracking and data to map the interconnectedness of the Internet. Mapping humans’ movements and interactions is no easy task. Humans are incredibly complex creatures, each with individualized goals and motivations. Data analysts work to collect data on a specific a target audience, analyze it, and create data models that are used to create larger datasets and projections. Data models are by no means always correct, but they give critical insight into how we work as individuals and consumers. When companies originally started to collect data, much of it was by hand. Today, all of the big companies in big data use automated algorithms to collect and to analyze these large datasets. There are a variety of ways in which companies can track us as users. Some computer bots can run crawling algorithms to collect and analyze data from a variety of different online resources. These bots can be used internally to spot inconsistencies and recognize patterns. Additionally bots can be used as an external resource used to analyze your competitors data, search public databases, and compile a plethora of data into easily understandable numbers. Additionally, companies use packets of computer code called cookies that tag and track users and each user’s online movements. They are designed to track each click, time spent, and the effectiveness of certain online ads. Cookies are a great resource for advertisers and marketers who want to have accurate and real time data about their audience, but they also pose certain security and privacy concerns that have been voiced by the online community. While cookies and other ways of internet tracking may seem superfluous many times encroaching on peoples privacy, the truth is that it allows brands to deliver more personalized and more authentic brand experiences to their users.
“Enterprises are collecting data with greater granularity and frequency, capturing every consumer transaction, attaching more personal information, and also collecting more information about consumer behavior in many different environments. This activity simultaneously increases the need for more storage and analytical capacity” (McKinsey 21). Global giants like Google and Facebook run the internet with their collection of big data. Offering premiere services for free presents each company with a dilemma. How will we make money in a capitalistic economy while ensuring that our users and content providers don’t feel their privacy is getting thrown by the wayside? Data collection allows global giants, websites, and companies to accurately and effectively reach their consumer target. Advertisers — the only companies willing to spend money for exposure — can tag onto and plug into incredibly huge, complex, and accurate databases of information on consumers. This allows brands and advertisers to produce financial and consumer models using sophisticated computer algorithms and highly skilled teams to collect, analyze, and produce personal and company “profiles” used in marketing, advertising, and consumer outreach. These profiles are complex and detailed — sometimes containing more than 300 data points per individual. Big data is not only a tool used in consumer analysis, but a powerful engine of competition and growth for brands. Forward-thinking companies within each industry should not be thinking about how to make big data bigger, but rather affect policy that will make data more useful to brands and protect the rights and privacy of the consumer. With a solid system for intellectual property rights, brands must ensure that their hard work is celebrated and personal innovation honored. A perfect balance is essential to guarantee that brands are free to use data and capture its full potential and that consumers don’t fear brands for reasons of privacy or personal security.