Data: defining ourselves by what we do

A very interesting article by Jacob Ward points out that privacy, as such, is no longer the critical issue for us:  rather, it’s the data about us accumulated by service providers that results in the effective demolition of any concept of “privacy” as such.

Facebook and other companies may very well be protecting your privacy — but they don’t need your personal information to determine exactly who you are and what you’ll do next.

. . .

First, understand that privacy and data are separate things. Your privacy — your first and last name, your Social Security number, your online credentials — is the unit of measure we best understand, and most actively protect … But your data — the abstract portrait of who you are, and, more importantly, of who you are compared to other people — is your real vulnerability when it comes to the companies that make money offering ostensibly free services to millions of people. Not because your data will compromise your personal identity. But because it will compromise your personal autonomy.

“Privacy as we normally think of it doesn’t matter,” said Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. “What these companies are doing is building little models, little avatars, little voodoo dolls of you. Your doll sits in the cloud, and they’ll throw 100,000 videos at it to see what’s effective to get you to stick around, or what ad with what messaging is uniquely good at getting you to do something.”

. . .

… data can predict not just which shirt you might be willing to buy, but which topics are so emotionally charged you cannot look away from them — and which pieces of propaganda will work best upon you. And that makes the platforms that collect data at scale an amazing way to influence human beings. Maybe not you. Maybe not today. But it’s enough influence, at scale, over time, that the outcomes on the whole are both overwhelmingly consistent, and yet individually invisible.

Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School, and author of The Attention Merchants, believes this makes social platforms — and Facebook in particular — a tremendous liability. “There’s an incredible concentration of power there. So much data, so much influence, makes them a target for something like Russian hackers. To influence an election, you used to have to hack hundreds of newspapers. Now there’s a single point of failure for democracy.”

And the categories into which your data places you can be used for much more than just selling you stuff or determining your political preferences. Without your ever telling a company your race, or sexual orientation, your behavioral history can reveal those things.

There’s more at the link.

That’s a scary thought, but it makes a lot of sense.  I block advertisements on almost every electronic medium I frequent, from my cellphone, through my computers, to my refusal to have a TV at all in my home.  I’m simply not exposed to 99% of the advertising out there, and I take care to make sure of that, because I find most modern advertising incredibly intrusive and annoying.  Nevertheless, if the author’s thesis is correct, advertisers don’t actually need to get to me with their messages in the old-fashioned way.

For example, can simply analyze my buying patterns over time, and suggest items that might also interest me.  The company can also analyze my wife’s buying patterns, be aware of the relationship between us, and correlate our mutual buying patterns to suggest things that we might find important as a family, if not as individuals.  It can share such data with other service providers who have different insights into our patterns of life, and build up a comprehensive picture of us.  In time, it can even do that for our friends, as we buy gifts for them from each other’s wish lists.

I’d love to know how detailed a profile has been built up of me – or of the kind of people, the category of human, into which I fit.  I’m aware that the major political parties have invested huge sums of money and time and effort into building voter profiles, so that local activists can approach us in the “right” way to obtain our support for their candidate.  That’s already common in the USA, but it’s spreading fast:  recent reports from Canada and Australia highlight how it’s being applied there.  Still, that’s only one example of how such data is used.  In what other ways are companies and “influencers” trying to manipulate us, using data about us to target us by profile rather than by name?

Thought-provoking, indeed . . .



  1. I am unsure if I should be relieved or worried that Kindle (and Audible) seem to be an utter failure at suggesting books of genuine interest to me – and they have the raw data directly, not through some third party or gathering of dataset shadows.

  2. or of the kind of people, the category of human, into which I fit.

    Peter, I think your question is interesting, but I don't think it's as basic as category. More likely your profile sits at a point on the axes of a vast multi-dimensional continuum of attributes. Each time you do something or buy something on line the data moves your profile on one or more axes. The advertising similarly has a profile; where it intersects with yours you get that advert. But both are broad and nebulous and you don't get tightly tailored stuff. A slightly more limited version would be the music algorithms used by e.g. Pandora or Spotify…the edges of my profile have opened up vast areas of music and new bands to which I may never have listened before….so I don't mind the tailored advertising….
    I share your concerns about commercial manipulation, but we're going to have to learn to live with that; it's not going away.
    More worrisome is that data in government hands…..your profile sits in a prohibited region, off to the reeducation camp with you! China's social media score is a perfect example of that.

  3. In the end, advertisers can suggest all they want, you have to make the decision to buy or participate. I generally look at who the ad is from and then trash it without more adoo. And Amazon's recommendations are just silly for the most part. I can't remember the last time I found an author I liked through a Kindle recommendation

  4. I'm afraid the general public still has little clue of how little privacy they have online. I use to work in data warehouse projects during the late '90 and early 2000 and we cold do a LOT with a customer's click history, the current algorithms used on machine learning and AI applications are significantly better than what was largely available at that time. The main difference and also the HUGE problem from my perspective is the fact that AI/ML/DL and so on relay on much more "learning" data for more accurate prediction/analysis/reaction, which is why practically everybody stores EVERYTHING (storage is cheap anyway). That also means that your virtual profile can and WILL be available on demand for ANYONE having access on the repositories and that's currently a question of price – the EU's illusion regarding "the right to be forgotten" is exactly that: an illusion since the (your) online data NEVER vanishes – it's impossible. So the only thing you can do is limit how much you give away online about you…

  5. Nick Sandmann's lawsuit against the Washington Post may raise some related issues: If the case goes to trial, Amazon has a lot of data on prospective jurors in the case; if members of the jury pool have Alexa in their homes Amazon will have even more.

    Bezos' defense team could probably do a lot with that kind of information if they had access to it.

  6. Not only are Amazon's book recommendations pitiful, the rest of their analysis of my buying habits isn't much better. In particular, they (and the rest of the spies) seem unable to distinguish between things that one buys once every twenty years and things that one buys over and over. If I buy, say, a new winter coat online, every web page I visit for the next six months will show me ads for winter coats. I want to tell them, "Look, stupid, I live in a warm climate. That was probably the last winter coat I'll ever buy!"

    I don't really want to improve those algorithms. But sometimes there's this powerful urge to tell them, "You're doing it wrong!"

  7. I agree – we are all a sea of data availably to the people who are willing to pay for it, or otherwise get access.
    I also agree with Margaret that so far the information is badly used, especially by Amazon – they keep showing me adds for something even after I bought it from them!
    I've also seen example of how just a few bits of "anonymized" data can identify a person.

    I don't think that their tactics will work in important things, like voting, UNLESS they can stupefy everyone in the country to be susceptible to advertising. For example, no matter how it is presented to me, I won't unchecked illegal immigration, or "free" abortions. There is a limit to what they can do, as shown by the above examples of over long or poorly targeted advertising.

  8. I use software to block ads and Brave as a browser to eliminate them altogether. I saw the specific targeting using firefox and other variant browsers and I can live without that crap loading.

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