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Big data or big risk?

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  • Publish date: 01 December 2011
  • Archived on: 23 November 2012

The past few years have seen the emergence of ‘big data’ – the tracking and utilisation of personal information gained through individuals’ behaviour on the web and elsewhere. Here Alan Mitchell discusses the potential merits of big data as well as the many privacy issues that it raises.

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Big date or big risk
If you haven’t already heard of it, you soon will. ‘Big data’ is fast becoming the next big buzzword in business, key (if you believe McKinsey) to effective innovation, competition and productivity. Not long ago, we lived in a mass, anonymous age. Unnamed, unidentified ‘consumers’ acted as faceless ‘audiences’ to marketers’ blandishments, buying products and services using an anonymous payment mechanism (cash). Today, virtually everything consumers do online, and increasingly offline, creates a ‘digital slug trail’ leaving massive data sets about who did what, when.

The resulting data sets are vast. For example, as well as knowing who we talk to, when, and for how long, mobile phone companies now know where most of us are, when, most times of the day – thanks to geolocation data. Cash is rapidly being replaced by electronic credit, debit, contactless and mobile payment mechanisms which are generating ever more comprehensive digital records of what we buy, from who, when.

Facebook has a map of over half a billion individuals’ ‘social graphs’ (ie friends, family and contacts) and their interests. Now, via the use of face recognition technologies, it also knows what each one of them looks like, while storing the 30bn pieces of content they create online, every month. Thanks to pervasive cookie technologies, our every click on the internet is recorded and stored and our movements tracked back to the IP address of our computers. Increasing proportions of online advertising are driven by the ‘behavioural targeting’ that follows: ads served up to be more relevant to the online journeys we’ve made.

This is an extract from the Finance & Management Magazine, Issue 194, December 2011.