Does Big Data Mean Big Discrimination?

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AcquistiQuoteSource Article: Big Data Could Create an Era of Big Discrimination

“Personal data harvested by marketers is growing so vast and far reaching that it is threatening to unleash a new wave of digital discrimination, one that ordinary people won’t even be able to see happening, Microsoft principal researcher Kate Crawford is warning.  Combining the troves of information collected by retailers, mobile carriers, Internet companies and others into massive databases creates so-called big data sets. Computers then troll the data looking for patterns that can be used to make predictions about consumer habits.”

Over the centuries, there has been a fascination with using personal data and traits to try and develop the ability to identify the characteristics of a person or group of people from this information.

One common method, Handwriting Analysis or Graphology, has been used extensively to attempt to identify an individual’s style, nature, and personality and has grown into a cottage industry.

Technology has allowed government agencies and businesses to collect and store vast amounts of data and use it for the same purpose. Advances in data mining software, have refined this analysis to produce some very accurate target marketing campaigns and consumer trend models.

It is now apparent that access to Social Media data, has taken this process and analysis to a new level. A 2013 study from the University of Cambridge [U.K.] and Microsoft Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “Private Traits and Attributes Are Predictable from Digital Records of Human Behavior,” shows that easily accessible “Facebook Likes” can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes. Some of these traits include; ethnicity, religious and political views, intelligence, gender, age, and even the use of addictive substances.

The model has accurately identified Democrats and Republicans 85% of the time, African American and Caucasian American 95% of the time, sexual orientation with 95% accuracy, and substance use 73% correctly. 

This type of surgical accuracy with readily available, easily accessible and relatively inexpensive data will make marketing executives absolutely giddy with excitement.

The Dark side of Data
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this harvesting of personal data. There is a significant potential for discrimination, and in most cases people will not even know it is happening.

Businesses can use these techniques to focus on a very narrow group of potential customers, but they can also weed out certain gender or race groups. A lender could provide higher pricing to specific groups or choose not to send offers to the same group. Insurance companies, landlords, employers can all have access to these modeling techniques. In many cases this will improve their target marketing and can help personalize product offerings, but there are also serious ethical issues that need to be addressed regarding data ownership and privacy.

In addition to this study, a Carnegie Mellon University team led by CyLab researcher Alessandro Acquisti has shown that public information readily gleaned from governmental sources, commercial data bases, or online social networks can be used to routinely predict most — and sometimes all — of an individual’s nine-digit Social Security number.

In the trial, researchers discovered it is relatively easy to predict Social Security numbers for people born after 1988 — when the Social Security Administration began pushing for infants to obtain numbers soon after birth.

Given the wealth of information available on Social Networking sites, and the availability of data mining techniques, we are providing an extremely fertile ground for identity theft, both for individuals and businesses.

Social Media activity is exploding at an exponential rate and the potential for abuse is increasing proportionally. As you can see from the studies mentioned above,  very little data can provide a great deal of information, planned or unplanned. The dangers are real and there are ways to mitigate the risks. Education, awareness and adhering to some simple guidelines – both professionally and personally  – can protect your data and help avoid data theft or abuse.

Companies must educate their employees on the potential dangers and provide sound governance and guidelines on Social Media activity. If your employees don’t know what is acceptable, how can they be expected to make good decisions?

Schools need to educate students on the dangers inherent with social media use, and individuals have to realize that there are those in the business of stealing your data (and more) and will do harm.

At Firestorm, with the use of webinars, seminars and consulting services, we inform, educate and train our clients on Social Media risk. Social Media sites have great potential to increase business, educate the public and provide entertainment; all of these uses should be approached safely and with proper planning, training, oversight and guidance.


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