Big Data or Big Brother?


Social media is all about trading one’s personal information. When you register online you actually choose to provide your personal data (name, email, photos, names of relatives and friends etc.) in return for a service that allows you for a fast and easy way to be in contact with your loved ones.

As Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the US Center for Digital Democracy puts it: “Facebook’s vision of its member base is a bunch of people naked, exposed and targeted at will by anyone who wants to do so”. And indeed this is quite a correct overall picture.

 But this is not the main issue here. Indeed there is a lot of information we are willingly providing to social media platforms. We might even say that they know more about us than some of our close relatives or neighbors. But their business model is based on trading our personal information in exchange for profits. As just selling our data will not work for different reasons, a lot of other information is collected about us (behavioral tracking). Selling our social and potentially economic behavior seems to be very lucrative so social media platforms and advertisers are collecting other types of data about us, as they are outlining our social profile so that advertising companies can provide us targeted commercials with the aim of increasing the sales of their clients.
And this is how the big data behind social media is created. Wikipedia says “big data is a term for data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate to deal with them. Challenges include analysis, capture, data curation, search, sharing, storage, transfer, visualization, querying, updating and information privacy”. The big data behind social media is all about us, about our preferences, about our desires, our likes and dislikes, finally about our life.
This kind of big data created a big controversy (still ongoing today) related to ethics and privacy of collecting such data.
As regards ethics, the issue is the following: Is it fair that our social behaviors are traded as common goods? Is it fair that we are stripped of our right to make informed and free decisions. We are offered advertisements based on what  the advertisers think we want, suppressing offers for products that we might be really interested in. How relevant are targeted advertisements is still very debatable today. It happens to me often to visit a certain product or company’s website, without the real intention to buy something and then get tens of targeted advertisements of that particular product/company. I do have the impression that in most of the cases their algorithms are too simple or they make wrong assumptions based on the multitude of data that serves as input. Or it might happen that the algorithms are good, but the range of companies/products or advertisers that embrace this practice is low, so they just serve you what they have.
Besides this, opting out of the tracking is impossible at this point, as no platform offers this solution (except in some paid services) and, in the absence of any legal framework, that cannot protect users against abusive behavior.
As regards privacy, the idea is also rather simple. Although you know you are being tracked and you do provide your consent for the use and sharing of such behavioral data, you never know exactly to whom are they shared with, to what purpose and how they’re going to be used. This can give rise to certain abuses (sharing towards companies that will misuse the data) or accidents (data breaches that can lead to public disclosure). There is also the problem of anonymity. Although most trackers claim to track anonymously we know that this is very hard to achieve or very easy to brake, if intended. We have seen some progress in this area in recent years as platforms provide more options on privacy management, but only for data that you agree to share consciously and not for behavior data, that is being tracked through different means. For this data you might also have some options, but only in selecting between various types of commercials that you want to see (see Facebook’s or Google’s ad preferences pages), not for opting out  the commercials or stop the tracking all together.

US digital ad spending by device 2013-2019

This business model is highly unlikely to change in the near future as platforms earn their profits mainly from these activities (see picture and the rise of mobile). Nevertheless actions against it are being taken by multiple stakeholders and the user tracking industry is changing right before our eyes.

On the one hand, there are applications that you can use to filter the types of ads platforms will serve you. Opting out from all of them will not mean you will not get any more ads but you will not get targeted ads (one example here). Basically, all platforms offer such features, but tracking is also done by other advertising companies through different other means. In some cases the opt-out is just not there.
There are also some apps that claim on showing you what platforms know about your preferences. One example is here, in a form of a Chrome plugin. Based on this input you can see what your potential profile is and try to change your behavior in such a way that you can fool the trackers. But with what effort and what could be the  outcome?
There are also the apps within the category called “ad-blockers”. They will remove most of the ads, delete some of the cookies and try to keep advertisers away from you. You can find many apps of this sort, a useful example might be found here.
All in all, a big battle is carried out there in the Internetosphere for us, the consumers, and our economic behavior. New tracking technologies are on the rise and also new blockers. Legislation is trying to keep up, but it seems to lag at least one step behind (see EU Cookie Directive). Since the stakes are on us, the consumers, we’d better pay more attention to this in the future.


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