Big data and personalization: where do we draw the line?

As a private citizen, I am ever more annoyed with the rising amount of advertising that hits me everywhere: on the Internet, in magazines and newspapers, on billboards, in public transportation, even in public toilets. It is especially annoying when I am bombarded with ads for stuff that I don’t want because the advertisers missed the boat on personalization.

On the other hand, as a professional, my job is to analyze data to come up with insights about behavior, trends and to provide recommendations that can be packaged into advertising. And so I am conflicted: am I really doing to others what I don’t want to be done to me?

Personalizing ads

It frightens me how much personal information the advertisers have about us. I came across one example in the book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. The author of the book Thomas L. Friedman explains that a lot of people may not realize that, in order for their phone to make a connection on the Internet, it is constantly sending out probe requests looking for WiFi and at the same time it is exposing a unique number that is embedded in the phone. Retailers can use this information to analyze what displays the customers lingered over in their stores, guiding them to adjust displays during the day. This can be taken even further: retailers can track who drove by their billboard and whether they then shopped in one of their stores.

Friedman goes on, saying that we need to keep a close eye on the monopoly power that big data can create for big companies, especially when we think of all the data that is being gathered by giant internet companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Microsoft, IBM, Netflix, Salesforce, and all the telephone companies—and how efficiently they can analyze that data for insights.

Is the customer pregnant?

You have probably heard of the typical big data story about how retailers know if a shopper is pregnant based on the items that she buys. Hiding the fact that a woman is pregnant from the all-knowing internet is not easy. I was intrigued by a story about how a woman hid her pregnancy from big data where she shares what it takes to avoid being collected, tracked and placed into databases.

She had to take drastic steps to ensure that there were no mentions of her pregnancy on social media and she asked her family and friends not to share. She used only cash when buying anything baby- or pregnancy-related and she set up a separate account where she used Amazon gift certificates that she bought with cash to have stuff delivered to a mail drop address when she ordered anything online. She used anonymous browsing whenever she searched for anything pregnancy related on the web.

The moral of her story is that we need to be more aware of the information we give out voluntarily, and she wonders if a time will ever come when we can opt out of giving personal information to the Internet.

How much personalization is enough

As consumers, we probably would like our shopping experience to include personal recommendations to suit our tastes and needs. We might want an email about a special promotion for an item that we were just about to buy, because the internet knows when was the last time we bought the item and the expected lifespan of the item based on our behavior. But we would not want emails about random stuff that someone wants us to buy just because they want to sell it.

As data professionals, we must be aware that personalizing advertisements requires storing large amounts of personal information and behavior history in databases. When analyzing data, we must always bear in mind that we should not look for personal or personally identifiable information, even if we are authorized to view personal data. Our job is to look for trends and patterns, or for segmented groups of individuals. Any personalized marketing to a particular individual should be relevant and discreet.

As a general rule, we should not do onto others what we would not want to be done to us. I know for sure that I would not want an ad that appears in a public space to be personalized for me when I walk by, where everyone else could see my preferences or past buying behavior.

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