Is The Road To Happiness Paved With Data?

Your smartphone woke you up earlier than expected, you mumble, as you read 5:45 AM on the screen. Reading further though, a notification informs you “your flight has been cancelled.” In order to make it to your destination in time, you’ll have to book an earlier flight, plus take into consideration morning traffic.

Fortunately, you can avoid a few nightmares by getting up at once and tapping “book now” while chugging a cup of coffee (or three).

Without the digital and mobile revolution, the use of consumers’ personal information to develop new tailored services such as the example above would not have been possible.

On the other side, new revenue streams and increased profits created by this harvested information have consumers concerned. If the value of information sharing can be very clear at times, it can also raise number of questions. Is this value equally shared among all stakeholders?

If you’re not paying, you’re the product

Even if the concept of collecting information to personalize services is far from being new, it’s the consumers’ awareness about why, how and what information is collected for commercial purposes that changed as technologies made it more and more fluid and automated.

Using broadband or Wi-Fi on mobile allowed an unrestricted access to the internet, whether it’s to find the best Lebanese restaurant in the neighbourhood or to monitor your health as you train for the next half-marathon. In the IoT era, our physical lives merge with our online habits. From socializing to shopping or watching TV, we now evolve in a phygital world.

By interacting with a few dozen businesses in average every day, from reading their newsletters to using their apps, we send them signals about how, when and sometimes why we use their content, product or services.

This (big) data is collected, analyzed and tested in order to build predictive analyses, gain priceless insights about unnamed motives and needs.

It can also be used to target a certain demographic for advertisers looking to maximize their return over investment. In such models, if the content is free, it is because you, the user, are being sold as part of a “targeted audience”.

The more granular the targeting can get, the more appealing to some advertisers, whose mind-set changed from mass media and global communications to segments and personalized, automated communications. From programmatic to addressable VOD ads, ad servers become more sophisticated every minute.

The price of ad blocking

On the other hand, ad-blockers now approach 200 million monthly active users, as consumers try to avoid privacy threats. While it is perfectly understandable, it poses a major threat to digital media companies. Since people are more reluctant to pay for their news, publishers can’t expect their revenues to come from subscriptions alone, and yet many of them struggle against ad blocking to remain attractive to advertisers.

From micropayment systems to “ad light” trial versions, today’s media face an ethically challenging problem: how to best serve your audience for a price they are willing to pay while protecting their privacy? And believe me, even if the Spotlight years are gone, good content still doesn’t come cheap.

You are being watched

From your political beliefs to your likelihood of being pregnant, companies can tell a lot about you based on your online fingerprints. And knowledge is power. Looking at the stock market value of companies such as Google and Facebook, built around collecting, aggregating, analysing and monetising personal information, it’s safe to say it is worth a lot. In fact, rumours are Facebook might soon pay you to keep using it! Mozilla would also be developing a new privacy-focused web browser paying you in bitcoins to watch safe ads.

And the online world is growing at an exponential speed; just think about Google’s Nest and Apple’s HomeKit, looking to connect to your home and monitor your environment. Your bank could even tell from your social media profiles if you have a risky behaviour and decide to not grant you that car loan, even if you have never missed a payment on your credit card. And this is where it gets tricky…

What if you were to be declined that promotion because your employer found out you were expecting a child? What if you could have gotten that trip to the Caribbean for much cheaper if only you had not been categorized as “high income”? What if the government was to start asking questions about tax evasion because of those pictures of you drinking champagne at your friend’s cottage?        

If you think this is pure paranoia, take a look at Do Not Track, a personalized web series about privacy and the web economy. In fact, until very recently in the United States, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 allowed law enforcement authorities to read emails from citizens without a warrant and use them in an investigation.

As technologies evolve faster than laws (it took the US 20 years to review the act), an increasing number of business practices fall into the grey area. So how do we, as consumers, regulate what we share and what we keep to ourselves, while we barely know if this smart TV or that game console is recording our every move? Where is the limit between tailored offers and personalized content and privacy threats? Who decides what gets shared with who, when new products and business models arise faster than rules to oversee them and protect consumers?

All of these questions deserve our attention, especially with the month of October being dedicated to transparency!

Text by Audrey Raby

Illustrated by James Billiter