The data collection industry, fattened on info snippets gleaned from social media and mobile devices, affects people's lives but operates without meaningful scrutiny.
According to a lengthy report released on Thursday by Cracked Labs, a cultural advocacy group based in Vienna, Austria, "A data environment has emerged in which individuals are constantly surveyed and evaluated, categorized and grouped, rated and ranked, numbered and quantified, included or excluded, and, as a result, treated differently."
Astute readers may hear an echo of the words of Patrick McGoohan as No 6 in the TV series The Prisoner: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!"
Cracked Labs' report, "Corporate Surveillance in Everyday Life: How Companies Collect, Combine, Analyze, Trade, and Use Personal Data on Billions," explores the data gathering ecosystem in an effort to illuminate how companies collect information on consumers and how they use that information.
"Enforcing transparency about corporate data practices remains a key prerequisite to resolving the massive information asymmetries and power imbalances between data companies and the individuals that they process data on," the report says.
"Beside corporate transparency, there is also a strong need for a much better general understanding of today's pervasive tracking and profiling technologies, as well as their impact on and consequences for individuals and society on a broad level."
Terms like "information asymmetries" and "power imbalances" conceal the consequences of operating in the dark in the knowledge economy: Being victimized by those in the know.
Among poker players, it's commonly understood that if you look around the table and you don't see the sucker, it's you. The situation is the same in the knowledge economy because you can't see anything. There's almost no transparency into how data gets bought, sold, and used to make decisions that affect people's lives. When people make decisions about the information they share, they seldom understand how that data will be used or how it might affect them.
For example, a person's mobile phone usage could affect the ability to get a loan. The Cracked Labs report describes how Singapore-based Lenddo calculates credit scores based on online behavior. It assesses mobile data, browser data, application data, transactional data from telecom companies, and web and social network data.
"The company even includes computer mouse click data and data about how people fill out web forms," the report explains. "In this vein, 'always running out of battery' might impact one's credit score; conversely, an extremely well-maintained smartphone might raise a red flag in the system, too."
'Predicted individual health risks'
The report describes how insurance firm Aviva, working with consultancy Deloitte, "has predicted individual health risks, such as for diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and depression, for 60,000 insurance applicants based on consumer data traditionally used for marketing that it had purchased from a data broker."
Of course, improving the odds for those with data (companies) means reducing the odds for those without. A Deloitte paper [PDF] linked to in the Cracked Labs report even mentions predictive analytics as a way to estimate the "walk-away 'pain points' of gamblers at Las Vegas casinos to guide casino personnel who intervene with free meal coupons."
The house always wins, but it can do so more often when it knows free food will keep you betting against the odds.
The report calls out smartphones as the biggest contributors to ubiquitous data collection, but it looks beyond Apple, Google, and Facebook and the billions of customer profiles each maintains.
It touches on the credit reporting agencies and data aggregators like Acxiom and Oracle. Since Oracle's acquisitions of AddThis, BlueKai, CrossWise, and Datalogix it has become a major provider of consumer data, in addition to databases.
Then there are the media companies, telecom companies, internet service providers, retailers, hotel chains, airlines, and financial companies, all of which have an interest in gathering customer data and using it to maximize revenue.
Yet amid the corporate enthusiasm for data, individuals have very little insight into how their data may be used for or against them.
"In today's digital world consumers never know whether their behavior may have triggered an action from any of those interconnected, opaque systems, how this may lead to them getting taken advantage of, and, ultimately, how this causal chain may affect their emotions and behavior," the report says. ®