The Dark Market of People Who Whine About Big Data

by Jeffrey Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

We hear the term “big data” a lot these days; I penned a blog about it only a few months ago. In the article, I outlined the many advantages we gain when businesses know more about us as consumers. If – and it’s a big “if” – we can be comfortable with our favorite brands knowing the minutiae of our lives, it will allow us to get access to better, targeted customer service and service offers that really speak to our needs. But perhaps this is just an optimist’s point of view.

There are those who take a decidedly different approach, and this is to throw “all of the above” out the window and insist that big data is infringing upon our personal lives. That businesses have no right to know about who we are, what we do, how much money we make, and our propensity to spend more money with their respective brands.

Frank Pasquale recently wrote a pretty good article for the New York Times called “The Dark Market for Personal Data.” This is a fairly good example of the perils of big data. He alludes to irrelevant data points being used to determine peoples’ fate in job interviews, or inaccuracies in data negatively affecting peoples’ personal lives.

This is all well and good except that any reasonable person can read through the lines. This is just someone who does not like change.

The data providers “peddle” sensitive information. He calls for regulation of big data, otherwise we will be “judged by a Big-Data Star Chamber.” This isn’t Star Wars. He does not offer any reasonable way that big data can be regulated. Had he asked any data provider how difficult it is to aggregate and normalize data and then build algorithms to accurately predict correct information, he might sing a different tune. It’s a difficult business, and difficult problems are not solved easily. Not even the NSA or the CIA knows everything about everyone, so how can big data really be regulated? Do we expect millions of Americans to sign up in droves to fill out a massive questionnaire about themselves? Even if this were to be achieved, data is fluid. People move. Jobs change. They have kids. And so on and so forth.

What I would ask is this: Is Mr. Pasquale ready to give up his smartphone? Is he ready to get off of Facebook? Is he ready to (gasp!) give up his internet access?!? If the answer is “no,” then he, and everyone else who complains about big data but still wants access to the sexy new gadgets we have in the year 2014, really just need to accept the consequences.

If you want to be under the radar, go under the radar. Give up your access to the internet, do not provide your data to your cell provider (because you no longer have a cell phone), and go live in the woods. Henry David Thoreau did it and he came out OK. But it is simply hypocritical to lament the collection of personal data when you are, in fact, using the tools that said businesses use to collect your personal data.

I do agree with Mr. Pasquale’s overarching message, which is that big data has imperfections, the ramifications of which can really hurt people. We should have an open conversation about ways to fix that. But in doing so, we should not peg data providers as Satanic thieves. We might instead think about why they do what they do, and oftentimes the answer is to help the people whose data they collect.

I stand more with Micah Solomon’s stance. He recently discussed the perils of big data, and uses a hotel as an example that might go overboard in delivering items to one’s hotel room based on what they know about the individual. That has the potential to be “weird” and “creepy” to a customer. But Mr. Solomon also recognized the many great ways big data can help customers, and I appreciate the balanced and level-headed approach to the issue.

Framed differently, check out this article about how Verizon and AT&T are tracking users’ internet behavior, specifically on Twitter. This might be troubling at first glance, but let’s back up a step.

When we are born, we are given certain unalienable rights. There are things we feel entitled to. As commonplace as smartphones and Twitter are today, these are not two of the things that we were born with or entitled to. This is technology that we willingly decide to use. In doing so, we have something of a contract in place: if we want to use this service, the provider of the service might track our behavior. If we decide to move forward, then the onus is on us to accept any and all negative ramifications of doing so. The alternative is to just not use the service.

Long story short: no one is forcing us to give up this information. Whether we know it or not, we give it up every day, and we do so in exchange for goods or services that make us happy.

This might leave the reader thinking we are heading into a digital era that is a little less exciting than the last one, one where we need to be particularly wary of what data we are sharing. But is this really news to anyone? It’s been about a decade now that an embarrassing photo you posted on Facebook could ruin your job prospects. In my opinion, it is up to each individual to be responsible.

Check out all the articles and articulate your own thoughts. These are just mine.