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Posted on February 23, 2016

The Potential of Big Data’s Never Ending Collection

We are living in a time where data is collected about everything that you do online. This collection is easy, cheap, and pervasive everywhere on the internet. Current privacy software and private browsing browser configurations don’t begin to combat state of the art tracking techniques. We cannot begin to understand what future effects the collection of this data can have when wielded by those who lack certain ethics and scruples.

When your internet usage is compiled and accrued over a period of time, then linked to your individual identity, a big data company can form a unique profile of you as a person and consumer. Your habits, hobbies, likes and dislikes, personal health issues, even your sexual orientation can be gleaned from the amalgamation and analysis of this data. The data can then be sold to any individual, company, or agency willing to pay.

A hypothetical scenario is helpful to demonstrate the potential harm presented by this form of data collection and commercialization:

Imagine that you are applying for a new job. Along with reviewing your resume, potential employers could also purchase your personal profile from a big data company. This data can be used to vet you as a potential employee. Your profile can contain data on such a wide range of topics it is truly hard to fathom. If you are in the first trimester of a pregnancy and have done research on baby supplies or obstetricians, a company could reasonably and easily deduce that you are pregnant. The company could then, for any reason they choose, make an alternative hire based on nothing other than this data point, regardless of its veracity. A scary example of the use of similar data is detailed in a 2010 article from the New York Times which describes how Target used data about a teenager’s purchase history to determine that she was likely pregnant, and begin sending targeted baby-related advertising to her home.

In another scenario, let’s say that you have been searching online for treatments for a mental health issue. You, or someone you know, could be affected by this issue—irrelevant for data collection purposes. A potential employee vetting your profile could interpret this information to mean that you are suffering from a mental health issue, and go with an alternative hire. While the hiring practices above likely run afoul of employment laws, the ability to prove that this sensitive data played a primary factor in a company’s decision not to hire a person is nearly impossible.

The truth of the matter is that we are only beginning to understand the consequences and potential abuses that the unbridled collection and sale of consumer data will have. Until appropriate legislation is passed to prohibit and punish the abuse of personal, private data in such ways, individuals must protect their privacy themselves using privacy software tools that have been specifically engineered to combat the latest forms of tracking.

The time to act is now.

— Ryan Flach
Co-founder, TrackOFF
[email protected]