Big Data highlights media industry’s quandary: need to earn profit while respecting privacy


Next week, when the postal mail arrives, sort out personal letters (remember those?) and bills, and place everything else in a stack to review at the end of the week. When your week of collecting postal mail ends, take a hard look at what you’ve received.

Sort your postal mail into two piles:

  1. Companies with which you’ve done business.

  2. Companies, political campaigns, and non-profits with which you have never done business or given money.

Pay attention to whom the mail was addressed: occupant, resident, and variations on your name, e.g. Stines Household, S. Stines, F. Stines, Scott St. Ines.

This exercise will begin to reveal the personal information that has been collected about you and how it is used by public and private companies, political parties, and non-profits to sell their products and services and raise money.

As someone who has paid a mortgage and sent children to college with the money earned from using information, I am both reluctant and eager to submit this article to’s Bottom-Line Marketing blog.

Reluctant, in that I know the more information we have on a target audience, the better we can target and the better the results, e.g. more profit, greater return on investment (ROI) for our clients.

At the same time, I’m eager to share my opinion on the sea of personal data (Big Data) that Julia Angwin of the Wall Street Journal writes about in her new book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.

I agree with Angwin that we live in a “Surveillance Economy,” which has undergone geometric acceleration with the advent of the Internet and social media. The wealth of personal data available about each of us – some right, some wrong – is overwhelming if you value your privacy, security, or freedom.  

Angwin’s book reveals how government, private companies, and criminals use technology to collect and use your personal information for their benefit. My eagerness is fueled by a concern that our “legal” use of personal information will result in consumer backlash and privacy laws that will forever change the way we do business – for the worse.

It’s not illegal: The quest for profit through better results is a shared goal for all public and private companies, as well as the very survival of non-profit organisations.

In the United States, in the absence of of strict privacy laws, we’ve seen an unfathomable amount of personal information collected that now, through advances in technology. This data is being used to target audiences of one, to improve results and lower costs per order/transaction.

Somewhere along the line, the privacy rights of consumers have been left behind or have become an afterthought. I’m reminded by a friend who works for a data broker that “it’s not illegal” to collect and use an individual’s personal information or behaviour to serve up offers or content that fits their past activity.

While that might be true, I ask myself how I would feel if there were a black sedan parked down the street from my house every night, or if someone was following me around in the grocery store noting the products I looked at, touched, placed in my shopping cart, and purchased.

Each of these surveillance activities already happens when we use shopper cards at the grocery store or turn on GPS location technology on our smartphones — even though most of us would agree this behaviour is “creepy,” if not unacceptable.

So why have so many of us given up on the notion of our right to personal privacy?  

Perhaps it is true what Karl Taro Greenfield writes in his May 24, 2014, opinion piece in The New York Times: “It’s never been easier to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything.”

Perhaps our pursuit of “being in the know” and using information as “social currency” has led to an acceptance of people listening in on our phone calls, reading our e-mails, or tracking which Web sites we visit and articles we read throughout the day.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue – or whether you believe privacy is even an issue – my belief is that unless we quickly change our perception and attitudes toward individual personal information, we can expect consumer backlash. And that will drive government to step in with consumer privacy laws that will alter our business practices.

It starts with a litmus test that goes beyond “Is it legal?” and ends with respecting individual’s rights to personal privacy. Perhaps it starts with understanding that we are not customers of Facebook – we are the product.    

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