Big Data is coming for you

Data privacy is a topic you’re going to increasingly hear more about.

Why the fuss? Because our data has surpassed oil as a valuable commodity due to the insight and knowledge that can be extracted from it. Knowing your customers better than they know themselves drives decision-making that results in revenue opportunities, cost savings and more efficient operations for companies.

A mountain of collected data allows companies to spend money where it will be best spent as patterns emerge to produce insights allowing for sophisticated decisions to be made and prioritized based on what the return will be. It makes perfect sense that businesses can minimize the chances of ill-conceived capital spends and increase spending on a product that performs better than expected.

What sort of data am I talking about?

Tapping into smartphones with location tracking capabilities potentially gives access to a myriad of data such as social contacts, user behavior, interests, location, photos and credit card numbers and passwords.

Have you ever had a conversation about some product, then seen it appear in a banner ad on a webpage you visit? Freaky, right? This is due to algorithms predicting behavior after analyzing the websites you visit and your purchases for logical patterns to follow.

Massive stores of user data are incredibly valuable, and you may be shocked to learn the sneaky ways they are set up to extract this data. By making services free, users pay, in effect, by handing over yet more data. Remember the saying, “If you aren’t the buyer, you are the product.”

Like oil, raw data’s value comes from its potential to be refined into an essential commodity, metaphorically transforming “crude oil” into “jet fuel.”

I’m all for companies being successful, but it’s disturbing to think of them mining every bit of our biological data from DNA tests that reveal our ancestry and screen for conditions like cancer or heart disease, potentially denying health coverage based on employees’ health risks.

People also overshare on social networking sites, and they may be tagged in photos or have valuable information exposed about themselves either by choice or unexpectedly by others. Data about location can also be accidentally published, for example, when someone posts a picture with a store as a background. We need to treat our social networks as if they are bullhorns in the public square rather than diaries for sharing secrets.

Microsoft faced a privacy backlash when it was learned that the camera bundled with its Xbox One gaming console would be always-on by default. Apple’s software removed the “always allow” option when third-party apps request access to your location.

Google and Amazon sell “digital assistant” devices for the home with a capability to listen to conversations awaiting voice commands to perform desired actions. Newer cars capture data points about drivers, tracking locations and monitoring activity on connected cell phones, secretly sending it to the manufacturer.

This week, The New York Times claimed it was able to use third-party smartphone apps to easily identify and track military officials, law enforcement officers, lawyers, tech employees, and others. It is currently legal to collect and sell this location data in the U.S.

It all seems pretty harmless until you are introduced to a cyberstalker or suffer reputational damage.

When you LIKE this or that on Facebook, you are helping the platform to refine the pile of details their advertisers can use to sort through millions of users to target sales messaging or propaganda at the most relevant targeted users, as we saw with the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Undercover investigative videos showed that company’s CEO boasting about using prostitutes, bribery sting operations, and honey traps to discredit politicians on whom it conducted opposition research. I imagine the aspirations of potential political candidates crushed by a threat to reveal compromising information – or blackmailed to act on someone’s behalf once elected. Political dissent can be silenced when protestors are electronically tracked. Unmanned drones fly over public gatherings, sometimes disguised as sea gulls to mask themselves while carrying high-resolution video cameras, infrared sensors, license plate readers, and listening devices.

Former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden said in 2014 that lax oversight allowed operatives to intercept and store sexually explicit images of millions of internet users without warrants and regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.

Hackers exploit simple vulnerabilities in networks when employees unknowingly click on suspicious links or open attachments in emails or use weak passwords. Hackers then trap data behind an encrypted wall and demand a ransom in bitcoin. In May, cybercriminals held the entire city of Baltimore hostage by seizing control of 10,000 of the city’s computers.

Please be cautious with your data, avoid connecting to public WiFi and use privacy enhancing technologies to encrypt your information. The most valuable commodity going forward may be your anonymity.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. Email:

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