Data Privacy and Marketing
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
In the early 1900s, Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla teased mankind, saying that he envisioned a future with a ‘world wireless system’. Later in the 1960s, the first working prototype of the internet emerged, with the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, better known as ‘ARPA-NET’. As computer engineers received more and more funding and incentive from the government, Robert Thomas, a researcher at BBN technologies realised the possibility of creating a program capable of moving in a network and leaving behind a trace, or a trail. This discovery led to the invention of the CREEPER, the world’s first computer worm that displayed the following message on computer screens:
"I’m the creeper, catch me if you can."
Although it wasn’t malicious, it did freak some people out at the time.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
So much of what we do nowadays happens on the internet. Whether it’s working on a cloud based system, browsing through YouTube, reading research papers, blogs or news articles, talking to friends and family, playing video games, and so on. Media and entertainment, which once tested our patience is now easily accessible through online streaming services.
While there is no doubt about the fact that technology has made our lives a whole lot easier, the internet does come with its own set of risks.
The dark web, as its name suggests, is a part of the internet that isn’t indexed by conventional search engines. These overlay networks are programmed to require specific softwares, configurations or authorisations to be accessed, and are typically where you can find credit card numbers, drugs, counterfeit money, subscription credentials and hacked accounts to access someone else’s computers.
In 2014, American e-commerce corporation eBay suffered one of the most brutal incidents of cyber attacks recorded till date. Using the dark web, hackers were able to steal personal records of over 200 million users, compromising passwords, contact information and physical addresses. Although financial credentials were claimed to be safe, the attack left eBay users vulnerable to identity theft.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
You might then want to ask: "Is the average user really at that much of a risk of data compromise?" While dark web users and domains consist of only 5% of all internet activity, being hacked isn’t the only risk we should be worried about. All those websites we visit, the links we click, the posts we like and the content we watch; is being recorded, scanned and analysed for user-specific purposes. Ever found yourself Googling or talking to someone about a certain topic, only to find an advertisement about that topic pop-up moments later? There’s an algorithm that goes into our web history, one that generates ads, results and content tailored to our interests, based on the search records.
Many companies use our information for marketing purposes, to channel data driven results in the hopes of achieving mutual benefit. Believe it or not, our favourite internet services, i.e. Netflix, Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, Google and YouTube all use our data in some way or the other. Given how much we use these platforms, knowing the ‘why’ behind certain pop-ups, ads and content can help us manage our usage on the internet in a safe, secure manner, without having much to worry about.
Since 2004, social media has experienced exponential growth in popularity, acting as one of the major sources of information and news, while allowing users to interact with one another. The presence of user-generated content such as photos, videos, ads and even blogs have led to 45% of the world’s population using social media, approximately 3.5 billion people. Of these, 54% of social media browsers use the platforms to research products, looking for reviews and recommendations before making a purchase. This, along with the presence of social media influencers on Instagram and TikTok has resulted in brands realising the importance of social media influence when planning marketing strategies.
We had invited a special guest on the show to help expand on this topic: Yannick Bikker. Yannick is an experienced exam trainer, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in International Business Administration at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. He has experience leading multinational teams in Digital Marketing Analytics and HR projects, with a passion for Data-driven Marketing. When he’s not writing articles on his intriguing page on Medium, he loves watching Formula-1, skiing and football. His Medium page will be linked at the end of this post.
In the ever-so dynamic world of Business and Marketing, change is imperative. Every few years, companies try conjuring new strategies with the hopes of attaining a sustainable competitive advantage in the industry. With technological advancements revolutionising the way we think and work, one of the most significant changes the 21st century has presented to us, has been through Big Data. Put simply, Big Data refers to a collection of structured and unstructured sets of information that is huge in volume, yet doesn't stop growing. This data is then analysed and processed to fine tune business strategies and make better decisions with their operations.
For example, The New York Stock Exchange generates 1 Terabyte (TB) of new trade data per day. Social media statistics show that every day, over 500 TB of data is ingested into Facebook's database, in the form of photos, videos, comments and messages.
Data-driven marketing is the process by which companies use customer data to form possible predictions of future behaviour. Customers like you and me, have various interactions and engagement patterns that are recorded within algorithms that track activity. Data-driven marketing uses this information to potentially enhance our experience using the web services by then, specifically showcasing ads based on our history.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
For example, say you’re into fitness like me, and that you were on Facebook one day browsing through your news feed when you come across a health & wellness blog, you click on it, like, react, comment, share whatever, you engage with it. Say you do that a couple more times, once with a healthy recipe video, and again with a yoga tutorial. It won’t be long before you see an ad pop-up about a new workout plan designed for meditative training, or a new diet plan.
Magic? Not quite.
Netflix has been under the spotlight for the past few years, with its growing user base and popularity. A major contributor to Netflix's success has been its predictive algorithm that has changed the way we think and know about movies, series and entertainment.
"Today, Netflix has become somewhat of a verb. If you've ever 'Googled' something or 'Ubered' somewhere, you'll know what I mean. Around 75% of all content watching on Netflix is based on suggestions and recommendations that Netflix makes using its algorithm. The former Director of Communications at Netflix once said that there are essentially 33 million different versions of Netflix, not one for everyone."
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash
Apart from this, Netflix also personalises the artwork of individual movie to make it appealing for different users! Take for example the movie 'Good Will Hunting'. If Netflix knows that you have been watching Matt Damon movies such as the Bourne series or The Martian, it will highlight his role in the Good Will Hunting artwork on your Netflix home page. However, for people who enjoy watching comedy movies, Netflix would probably showcase Robin Williams' role in their Good Will Hunting artwork.
Who knew we'd transition from DVD players to this within a span of 10 years.
The Privacy Dilemma
One of the most controversial and recent incidents of data privacy breaches on the internet was that of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in early 2018, including data from over 50 million Facebook users. Facebook’s terms and conditions allows the company to gather and store all kinds of user data, including photos, likes, online purchases, page activity and contact lists. This information is stored in Facebook’s server, with the hopes of giving the network better data for advertisers. Back in 2015, Facebook allowed app developers access to users’ friends data, and information retrieved from Facebook authenticated logins or those quizzes that pop-up on our news feeds.
Dr. Aleksander Kogan, a psychology professor from Cambridge university then developed an app that gathered information from approximately 270,000 Facebook users, to build psychometric maps of personality traits based on their online activity. This wasn’t illegal, until the information was given to political data firm Cambridge Analytica which could potentially be used to influence voters during the 2016 election campaign. This data breach violated Facebook’s terms and conditions, causing problems.
Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash
All these companies need is our demographic, interests and online activity to deliver a customised web-browsing experience, full of ads and content. That’s not to mention the presence of a black market and the dark web, where our data can potentially be sold or stolen. Facebook is not alone in this regard either. Online platforms like Google, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Netflix, all have access to sensitive user data that are vulnerable to threats or scams. This data might be spread across a handful of servers owned by organisations. But that simply means it only takes a little bit of effort for someone, another company or even the government to intervene and put the pieces together.
In May 2018, the European Union (EU) implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that required every company doing business with citizens of EU countries to inform authorities in cases of a data breach within 72 hours of discovery. This rule applied to any company offering products/services to these citizens and that had user data. Is that the way to go though?
Unlike a shopping mall, where all the products, prices and promotions are fixed for everyone to see, the online space has developed such that we're no longer completely anonymous on the internet. Therefore, companies often have detailed customer data based on buying preferences and behaviour tracked with the help of cookies. These are small pieces of code that record activity while we're browsing a website, and can collect information such as login details, search history, IP addresses and web data. While it sounds like an invasion of one's privacy, these cookies in fact help us log into a website without having to enter our credentials every single time. Ultimately, the trade-off is between privacy, and convenience.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
"On one hand you have policy-makers and government trying to protect privacy rights and trying to make sure that these big firms are operating within the law, as you mentioned with GDPR. However, to some extent it's also our own responsibility as consumers to realise what's going on and be mindful of how much data we actually give to these companies. It doesn't seem like they're going to stop collecting all this data anytime soon, it's here to stay. We've also just got to deal with it."
Cookies work similar to the Netflix example we mentioned earlier, helping companies obtain relevant information to in-turn, show us relevant content. If you were to search Amazon for Harry Potter books, the next time you visit their website, Amazon could potentially fill your landing page with Harry Potter books or other merchandise you might like. It all comes down to how readily accessible everything is nowadays; we have the option to control it, at the cost of convenience.
Data Safety and Artificial Intelligence
While data on social media can be used for a variety of purposes, you might say that you’ve made your profile completely private, preventing anyone but yourself or your close friends from seeing your information. So let's say these companies are harmless, that they don’t really care about the average social media user who posts selfies and statuses each day. Is that the end of it?
Photo by Brian Kostiuk on Unsplash
In a world full of entertainment, one of the most influential and technologically advanced work areas in media has been that of Graphic Design and Photoshop, changing the way we look at and consume media. After photoshop, Video editing became the new craze, as aspiring YouTubers learned video-manipulating softwares and created seamless videos to grow their channels. As consumers, many of us don’t give much thought towards how much effort really goes into making even the shortest of video clips as we watch them.
Yet, this year has something new coming up. Something that seems humorous and entertaining from the outside but has the potential to be dangerously misused by the human mind. A technology, known as Deep-fakes. Check out the following video:
Deep-fakes are videos that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Deep Learning to formulate fake events that look and sound like the real thing. With this technology, people can use celebrities’ faces and map them on other individuals to create a convincing video that is hard to refute. A Deep-fake video runs thousands of face shots comprising of two individuals through an AI algorithm known as an Encoder, which identifies similarities and reduces them to scan for common features. Then, another algorithm known as a Decoder recovers the face which can then be mapped onto the second person, for every frame of the video. The key talking point though, is how this technology may be used and for what purposes.
While Deep-fakes initially started as a way of expressing humour, many claim that if misused, this technology has the potential to wreak havoc on societies. All a Deep-fake software requires are images of an individual, which can be retrieved from social media feeds and videos. On a national security level, Deep-fake technology can be used to fabricate evidence to gain an upper hand in court cases, mimic biometric data and even trick facial recognition software systems. Today, a majority of Deep-fake videos consist of mapping female celebrities' faces into pornographic movies.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
The key takeaway from all this is that our data online is always vulnerable to something or the other. The best thing we can do to stay vigilant is to secure our servers. Some common ways of doing so include:
Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), that encrypts the data exchanged between your device and a new network that is unfamiliar
Using two-factor authentication and unique passwords for your logins
Staying away from click-bait (anything that sounds too good to be true)
Clearing caches and cookies in your web browsers
Using a security scanning tool to avoid malware
Naturally, we cannot live in fear of having a Deep-fake video of ourselves or our loved ones released online, we're not in a dystopian futuristic world just yet. Many of you probably already know these security methods, which also include being cautious with the privacy of your social media profiles. So that's a good start.
"I believe that AI and Deep Learning will continue to grow rapidly, with companies introducing more such Data-driven algorithms to create better and more effective Marketing campaigns. With privacy, companies would need to find a balance between being transparent about their tactics to maintain consumer trust, while also keeping their inherent strategies competitive."
They say 'data' is the new language of the 21st century. Needless to say, data is going nowhere and the best we can do, is to learn to live with it...in harmony.
Check out our podcast on Anchor ; Apple Podcasts ; or Spotify
For a brief summary of this blog post, visit Medium
If you enjoyed our content, we'd appreciate a like on Facebook, and a follow on Instagram
We offer our sincere gratitude to today's guest- Yannick Bikker, check out:
Yannick's website- https://www.yannickbikker.com/ Yannick's Medium page- https://medium.com/@yannickbikker
Sources used for information: