In just one week, the two most prestigious newspapers in the United States have published indictments of data gathering at the very peaks of the retail and Internet worlds.
First was Charles Duhigg's New York Times byline about Target, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets," all about the retailer's alleged marketing efforts and analytic targeting of customers who are expecting babies.
The second was the Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries' Wall Street Journal lead about Google's apparently admitted bypass of Apple's default Safari iPhone browser settings in order to track user behavior.
In both cases, the alleged culprits said tersely that they had been misrepresented in the newspaper accounts. Then Target clammed up and Google did the same (after stopping the practice that WSJ had uncovered via a Stanford researcher).
Without detailing the stories here, anyone in information management not aware of both needs to read them as bellwethers of what we're going to see a lot more of.
This is not how Big Data wanted to make its grand entrance.
As the stories play out, knee-jerk defenses from outfits the size of Target or Google will not serve them well. Their choices can't be shrugged away like a security hack or an "Oops" moment. Analytics are literally defined as calculations, and everyone gushing over big data should keep that in mind.
It does feel in some ways like we're experimenting with huge volumes of high-velocity data in un-policed ways simply because, for the first time, we can. In good ways (like medical research) and in potentially bad ways our data skills are outpacing our understanding of their purposes and outcomes. Duhigg's story surely burned his bridges with Target and other official channels. But as activities like the ones Duhigg recounted cause us to begin to recognize ourselves in the marketing offered to us, brands will take a beating if they don't know the line they are walking and don't manage policy more transparently.
There was a similar reaction five or six years ago when now mundane stories about using analytics to predict telecom customer churn rates led some of my contacts to shut down. Some of this is just the secret sauce of selling but marketing analytics are also touching completely new ground in transactional and personal information mashups. Even the writers at Forbes find themselves rapt at the prospects for big data and also a little creeped out at the thought of profiling potentially pregnant customers.
Consumers meanwhile, can no longer feign disbelief when these stories arrive. Having immersed ourselves in free social tools and applications that allow us to connect and communicate and facilitate our day, we have plainly assigned them great value and we're impatient for new gadgets to arrive.
Anyone who thinks the people offering all this utility at no cost haven't expected a quid pro quo is misled. Though no one knows where it will end, we can now see some of the business models for social and search providers that we once scratched our heads over. There is some irony in that last week's stories arose from prestigious newspapers that are now themselves on the edge of financial extinction.
Talking over some of this last week, Howard Dresner mentioned a meme of unclear origin that has been circulating the Internet to address all the free apps and services we're wolfing down these days. My favorite version of it would go like this:
If you didn't pay for it, you're not the customer, and you might well be the product.
Tim Berners-Lee already said it: The story is in the data. Let's hope we sort more of it out before the congressional hearings are inevitably called.
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