• Today’s Data: Is my data safe in this modern world?

    Megan van der Ham

    As promised, this month’s blog will cover personalization using data and the concerns about privacy that come with this phenomenon. To make you more familiar with this topic, let’s discuss a situation which almost everyone has experienced. Ever saw an ad appear about something you only talked about? Are you feeling like your mobile devices are listening to your private conversations? This is (ordinarily) not the case! The reason why this happens is because marketeers use collected data to reach as many customers as possible. So what happens is that they monitor your demographic and location data to find out more about who and where you are. Based on this, they “personalize” the ads you see online, meaning that you see different ads than others who are not your age and gender and who are at a different location and you might see the same ads as others who are at the same location. 

    Lots of you may have seen the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. If not? You should take some time out of your day to watch it! In this documentary, ex-employees of major social media platforms, professors and computer/data scientists collaborate to provide a clear understanding of what happens behind the scenes of (our) social media. It explains how what you do on social media influences what you will see on social media, since big social media companies manipulate users by using algorithms that encourage addiction to their platforms. For most people it is unknown how these algorithms work and therefore, this documentary tries to explain it in a way most people are able to understand. What is made clear, is that the data that these companies generate from your online activity, is used to personalize the platform. Not only social media platforms do this, also most retail companies apply this in their marketing strategy.

    So how does this personalization process work? With the arrival of the internet and especially the increased online shopping that is happening the last decade, companies need to change their marketing strategy and in particular improve their online marketing. It is more profitable to advertise a product to people who have a higher chance of buying it than to just advertise this product randomly to everyone. Data plays a huge role in finding the right people to target and companies are trying to gain as much information about their customers as possible. As mentioned, they monitor demographic and location data. For example cookies are collected, which are small pieces of data used to identify you as a specific user. Eventually, when all this data is collected it is possible to create a profile of either you as part of a target group or even of you as a specific person. This profile is then used to personalize your experience in the best way possible, with the goal to generate more sales from you than when you would visit a non-personalized webpage. This can be seen as advantageous for both parties, since companies generate higher sales and you only see valuable ads. However, this often does come with the concern of privacy.

    One particular well-known case in which privacy has been violated is with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is documented in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack. Here, private Facebook data of dozens of millions of users collected via a second app, is sold by Cambridge Analytica to the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, helping them to build voter profiles. This for example led to micro-targeting the swing voters to persuade them to vote for the particular presidential candidate. Unfortunately, this is not the only case where private data of users or consumers is leaked. To give back a little control to the consumers, the EU introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, which is a regulation in EU law that requires businesses to protect personal data and privacy collected from EU citizens. This is a step in the right direction to regain the trust of many people and show them that their concerns are heard. 

    After reading this blog, I hoped I have made you more aware of what you (unknowingly) allow companies to do with your data and if you want to know more about this topic, I would recommend you to watch both documentaries. In the end, everyone should have their own opinion about the seriousness of this topic. However, since these companies mostly use your psychology to gain the greatest advantage for themselves, it is important to think about this next time you give permission for your information to be tracked! Next month’s blog will discuss how data can tell a story if the right visualization is used.