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Big Trouble in Little Data

Big Trouble in Little Data
| Editorial Staff

‘Big data.’ ‘Metadata.’ ‘Raw data.’

B.J. Mendelson has a passion for privacy, so he created a book “Privacy” from his collection of essays on privacy protection.  This is an excerpt from the chapter entitled “Big Trouble in Little Data.”  We felt it was worth sharing. (@bjmendelson)

Data processed by autonomous machines employing ‘machine learning.’ By the time you read this, there will be more data-related buzzwords than I can possibly list, especially relating to the use of your data by artificial intelligence. Since this is not a book on AI, we won’t get into that topic here, but I will share with you this: there’s a running joke in the artificial intelligence industry that anything that hasn’t been invented yet is referred to as AI. Everything else that actually develops from that field, like machine learning (which does involve your data and privacy) has its own name, and in some cases, the technology behind it is many decades old.

Where machine learning is concerned, the thing to keep in the back of your mind is that the information we’re entering into Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other platforms is being used to make better recipes (algorithms) with more data. So, in yet another instance where ‘free’ isn’t necessarily free, the smarter we make those systems, the more likely we are to further the speed of automation—and that means fewer jobs and opportunities for our fellow humans.

Privacy BookThat aside, the thing to underline here is that your data is incredibly valuable when it comes to non-government entities. Period. Full stop. Because of this, your privacy has the potential to be violated in a number of ways, by multiple parties, in order to serve various private interests. This will increasingly involve things like machine learning. And we’re not just talking about data collected from your smartphones, smartwatches, and laptops. If you use a voice-activated assistant like a Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, or if you’re reading this inside an autonomous vehicle, there are some major issues surrounding your data involving those respective products as well.

Amazon’s new Alexa Spot basically puts a camera in your bedroom. A lot of self-driving car software systems keep track of everywhere you go in order to make the best recommendations about how you can get there in the future. But the fact that you keep going to that one Adam & Eve’s location in Columbus also gets picked up. Those visits get shared with other parties by the software powering your self-driving car—other parties who may start sending you targeted messaging about coupons and deals you can use at Adam & Eve on Wonder Woman costumes for your significant other to wear in the bedroom.

There’s often a lot of confusion about the kind of data being collected by these companies through their sites, devices, and apps. What I’d like to do here, then, is explain the different types of data these companies are collecting about you, and then discuss what makes them valuable in the first place. Just a note: what data is, and how it’s collected, changes often. So consider the information below to be a good starting point for discussions on privacy, but not the last word.

Disparate Data

In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has pushed Congress to force the businesses behind many apps and Internet-enabled platforms to be more clear and honest about the type of data they’re collecting from their users.

The FTC breaks that data down into twelve unique groups:

  1. Identifying data (your name, address, phone numbers, and emails).
  2. Sensitive Identifying data (your Social Security Number, Driver’s License number, and birthday).
  3. Demographic data (your height, race, religion, and marital status).
  4. Court and Public Records data (bankruptcies, judgments, liens, and your political party affiliation).
  5. Social Media and Technology data (your platform of choice and how much you use it, how many ‘friends’ you are connected with, your Internet Service Provider, and how much you use the Internet).
  6. Home and Neighbourhood data (how much you pay in rent, how much you pay on your mortgage, the value of your home).
  7. General Interest data (how much gambling you might do, the type of clothes you like to buy, the shows you watch, the kind of pets you own).
  8. Vehicle data (whether you own a car, what car you own, your car preference, and your car-buying habits — and with autonomous vehicles, you can expect this category to expand greatly in the next decades).
  9. Financial data (your credit, the loans you have, the type of credit cards you may own).
  10. Travel data (your preferred hotel, your preferred airline, the kind of vacations you take).
  11. Purchase Behaviour data (how much you spend, the type of things you buy, and your preference in terms of how and where you buy your stuff).
  12. Health data (your prescriptions, whether you have allergies, whether you wear glasses; in other words, the kind of things only your doctors should know).

Mo Data Mo Problems

Everything in this book, and most of the debate concerning privacy not pertaining to the government rests on one key fact: your data is worth a fortune, and every day, regardless of what Internet-enabled device you choose to use, you create more and more of it for someone else to profit from. Did you pick up your phone first thing in the morning to text your sex kitten using iMessage? You created more data. Did you ask Alexa what the weather is like this morning? You created more data. Did you send some emails? Data. Did your self-driving car take you somewhere? Data. Did you use Google Maps on your phone to find that famous underground club in Los Angeles? More data created. Did your Apple Watch congratulate you on how many times you stood up today? Data. Did you visit Pornhub at least twice today to see if anyone uploaded any new superheroine porn? Even more data created. Have I mentioned yet that Facebook has the largest data set of faces in the world and doesn’t even need to see your face at this point to identify you in pictures that get uploaded to their system? Yeah, they totally do. All with the goal of selling that information to advertisers so they can target you based on your emotions. Remember that the next time you’re feeling sad and Facebook starts serving you nothing but Ben & Jerry’s ads.

The list goes on, but I think you’re getting the picture. If you do something with an Internet-enabled device, you’re creating valuable data that everyone wants a piece of. (Whether the data is worth a damn for advertising purposes is a different story entirely, and really irrelevant after a certain point, because you can’t suddenly stand up and go “all of this is bullshit” and expect multiple multibillion-dollar industries to change their policies and actions all at once. Believe me…I tried.)

Your data makes money for data brokers and data providers like Acxiom, Datalogix, Epsilon, Experian, Equifax, Oracle, WPP, and TransUnion. The Fair Credit Reporting Act only protects you from three of those companies, by the way, and most of this data is passed around without first being encrypted, making your data easy to find and way less secure than it should be on these servers. Facebook purchases data from these and other companies in order to recommend products and run advertisements in your feed, as well as make other suggestions.

Facebook then turns around to large companies, some of whom now have Facebook and Google employees within their marketing ranks, to sell them on investing more money into Google and Facebook’s platforms because of how well they can target you. WPP is the world’s largest advertising holding company and there is a revolving door between them and Facebook and Google. As NYU Professor Scott Galloway points out, there have been around 2,000 employees of WPP thus far that have migrated to Facebook and Google.

Advertisers and other parties can also upload the emails they purchase from these companies and then specifically target you on platforms like Facebook. This is what the Russian operatives did in battleground states during the 2016 US presidential election, after allegedly breaking into voter registration systems operated by a company called VR Systems.

These data brokers and data providers also funnel data from websites, apps, and smart devices (with and without your knowledge) to build a profile on you that they can sell. So yes, your paranoid friend who thought the CIA was talking to them through their microwave was right. Someone does indeed have a file on you with all your information.

It’s just not necessarily the government. And if that file were to get out, if it includes data like your browsing history, you could be in for some trouble. That’s why I never bought the “I have nothing to hide” argument. You mean to tell me there’s nothing in your browsing history that couldn’t embarrass you or cause you to lose your job if your boss saw it? Really? Even I clean out my browser history regularly, and everyone reading this book now knows I have a superheroine-in-peril fetish.

Your data creates market opportunities for tech companies looking for ad dollars in exchange for selling aggregate profiles of their users. Your data is worth something to numerous, numerous parties. If it wasn’t so, it’s likely that most of our concerns regarding privacy addressed in this book wouldn’t be so pressing because no one would want our data in the first place. It’s one thing to tell people, “If you use something for free on the Internet, you are the product”, but it’s quite another to tell them that their personal data is worth a fortune and others are getting rich from it. And, as I’ve said, and hopefully at this point you agree, I’m a big believer that you should be getting a cut of the action if someone is making money off your stuff.

BJ MendelsonSame goes for any other membership or loyalty program out there. And I’m not letting your local grocery store off the hook, either. There are plenty of ways to get rich in America, but being creepy doesn’t have to be one of them.

  • You can read more of B.J’s essays in this short but fact-packed and fun reading paperback “Privacy” available on Amazon.
  • As a bonus to the book, the appendix, bibliography & further reading section is the go-to reference for just about everything worth reading about privacy and data protection.
  • Mendelson has also appeared on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, Yahoo! News, the CBC, TechCrunch, The Huffington Post, and numerous other national outlets to talk about the myths of social media and who actually benefits from the hype. You can learn more about B.J.’s adventures at his website.
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