Individualism and Privacy
In 2018, privacy advocates applauded as the European Union’s enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), touting it as a model for other liberal democracies intent on defending individual rights in the digital age. The GDPR requires companies to provide documentation explaining why they are collecting and processing people’s data, how long they will hold it, and how they will protect it during that period.
Consumers are now prompted to consider such documentation before opting in to a company’s website. (In the United States, we may only opt out, after already visiting a website.) The GDPR aims to make data collection more than an afterthought as we navigate the digital universe. That way, we might be more discerning in sharing our data.
The problem is, the science of Big Data — the industry engaged in data collection and analysis — is increasingly arcane. Individuals cannot be plausibly empowered to comprehend and discern how their data is used.
Consider a few illuminating examples. In 2012, news broke that the retailer Target was determining when pregnant customers were in their second trimester in order to market to them more effectively. How did Target’s data analysts figure this out? They identified a constellation of products that, when purchased together or in close succession, revealed a person’s impending maternity.
These weren’t obvious products like diapers or cribs, which people would buy closer to the due date. Target wanted to know of pregnancies early on; telltale products included lotions, cotton balls, and multi vitamins. Target’s analysts got so good at figuring this all out, they could predict a woman’s due date to within a matter of days.
In one notorious case, a man stormed into a store complaining about the baby-related coupons his teenage daughter was receiving, demanding to know whether the company was “trying to encourage her to get pregnant.” The store manager apologized — but the man called back a few days later to report his daughter was indeed pregnant. Target simply knew before he did.
Consider also that data analysts determine creditworthiness from mining our smartphone behavior. They pay attention to how often we change our phone battery, how many messages we receive, whether we are solicitous in returning phone calls, and how many contacts our phones contain. Increasingly, Big Data does not even need our data — metadata, the data of our data, will do. Analysts believe they can learn plenty from the mere form of our communications and digital behavior.
Technology scholar Shoshana Zuboff tells us an insurance company will soon determine your premium not on the basis of “what you write about but how you write it. It is not what is in your sentences, but in their length and complexity, not what you list, but that you list, not the picture but the choice of filter and degree of saturation, not what you disclose but how you share or fail to.”
And you don’t even have to be online for spies to learn all about you. Facebook compiles shadow profiles of people whose existence is merely invoked on the social media platform.