Individual data elements may be inert, but when different elements are combined together, they can create a toxic mix. As a result, should businesses be treating data like dangerous chemicals?
Big breaches and data leaks occur with disappointing frequency. We often see incidents happen (which may or not be breaches) whereby millions of records fall into the wrong hands or are misused. But when large swathes of personal information are leaked so regularly, people often respond with apathy because they don’t see the personal impact of these breaches.
If a fraudster takes out a mortgage application using someone else’s details, it is nearly impossible to pin down where those details originated. So, it is treated like any other fraud quickly forgotten. In contrast, people have reacted to the Cambridge Analytica scandal with outrage across all parts of the globe. What makes this situation different?
For many years, advertisers and marketers have been working to try and understand ‘who’ their customers are. Big data has allowed information to be collected and analysed at scale.
Many companies with access to a dataset of habits or personality traits will use it to help improve their products and offerings. Video streaming sites can recommend shows and movies that they think you’d be interested in based on both your own viewing history, and what others with similar interests have watched. Shopping advertisers use similar algorithms to help predict buying patterns.
For example, purchasing a pair of shoes will often lead to shoe polish recommendations. While not perfect, these legitimate uses mostly work well for both sides. They help the retailer upsell or keep the viewer glued to a site for longer, and the consumer enjoys the convenience of “hand-picked” recommendations.
When data manipulates you
However, when huge amounts of data on individuals are aggregated into one place, it becomes possible to use that data to manipulate the individual.
In her 2013 paper, Analyzing the Chemistry of Data, Wendy Nather asked whether data should be treated like dangerous chemicals. Individual data elements may be inert, but when combined, they can create a toxic mix.