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    Column at Harvard Business Review: Who’s Been Trafficking in Your Data?

    Robert Plant, an associate professor of computer information systems at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, writes at Harvard Business Review about companies tracking and selling the data of their customers, such as what they buy or what Web sites they’re viewing:

    [R]est assured: Someone at this very moment is getting into your life too. Not some security official in the U.S. government, but someone in a publicly traded company whose activities are equally opaque to you. Our love of smart phones, mobile devices, and apps puts high-value data about us into the hands of legions of consumer marketers, and they’re making the most of the opportunity.

    Consumers generally don’t understand the risks of having their personal data floating around out there. A recent legal case filed in Ireland offers a hint of what some of the dangers are. In the lawsuit, Facebook was accused of creating “shadow profiles” of nonusers. Social media members who seek long-lost friends sometimes leave traces of their searches on the sites, including email addresses of nonmembers and the contents of messages to those individuals. The concern is that these data might include unverified information about nonmembers’ “political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, sexual orientation, and so forth.” […]

    Consumers should be asking some serious questions: “Why am I being tracked?” “Who is tracking me?” and “What is happening to my data?”

    The first question has a simple answer: Don’t take it personally, but you’re not a customer anymore. You’ve become a commodity, one of 7 billion datapoints on the planet. Your every activity, tracked and logged, has a potential value.

    As for the second question, chances are you’re being tracked by a lot of organizations, including telecom companies, credit agencies, search engines, major software firms, and probably several government agencies.

    The answer to the third question depends on what kind of data we’re talking about. You generate different types when you interact digitally with different kinds of organizations, from supermarkets to telecoms. Each data type follows its own route from you to a database and out into the marketplace. Take, for example, the data you create when you use an app on your smart phone to look up information about a movie. Your mobile operator processes the information and augments it with your demographic data before “irreversibly” anonymizing the information and putting the “aggregated” version — what’s known as “unified census plus demographic data” — up for sale. These highly detailed, low-level data are valuable to a number of companies because they allow for analysis of what device and features you used, what apps and web sites you visited and for how long, and where you were (physically) at the time.

    Read the entire article for more information, including thoughts on what you, the customer whose personal information being tracked and sold, can do:



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