Big Data (Brother) is Watching…and Listening Too…

Nearly five years ago I wrote a blog about Big Data and how it could be relevant for sourcing and supply chain professionals. Needless to say, a LOT has happened since then. In a Gartner survey performed in October 2016, 48% of companies indicated that they have a Big Data initiative currently underway, with another 25% who stated they had plans on the horizon. So it is no longer a question of whether or not companies are using Big Data…that is a given. Now the question is how companies are using it and how they are incorporating Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the equation.

The information being collected from Big Data initiatives is powerful and can provide predictive analytics and insightful information. For example, a shipping company being able to change delivery routes based on current traffic patterns increases productivity (not to mention customer frustration). A large company using it to detect anomalies in behavior by third party vendors and mitigate the risk associated with that information could protect them from millions in cyber security damages.

But does the use of Big Data also raise privacy concerns? Based on recent experience, I would give a resounding yes. In the last week, I’ve held cell phone conversations about three unrelated things within earshot of my friends Alexa (Amazon Echo) and Siri (iPhone). In one, I was talking to my sister about borrowing a dog crate for an upcoming trip. In another I was looking for the bottle of Advil that should have been in the kitchen. And in the third, my college freshman was asking if I was the one who had sent him “Poo-Pourri” for his birthday (um…no). In none of those cases, did I do a web search for those items. And yet in each instance, within 24 hours, I started being served ads when online—one for dog crates, another for Advil and a third for, you guessed it, Poo-Pourri. Coincidence? Some would have you think so.  I think not and I’m not alone.

So at what point does the convergence of Big Data into our personal lives cross privacy lines or ethical boundaries? Retargeting is a popular (if not slightly creepy) form of advertising that allows marketers to serve you ads based on your visiting a certain website or searching for a specific item. And it can be effective—especially if it is relevant to you in some way. But do we really need to monitor what we say to avoid getting ads based on a phone call or dialogue with a friend? I shudder to think of what ads we may see based on some people’s conversations. Frankly, I doubt that any of us want all of our conversations subject to advertisement.

In the spring of 2013, Bill Franks, Chief Analytics Officer for the International Institute for Analytics, addressed this issue and suggested that companies consider three questions when developing privacy policies for Big Data: What is legal? What is ethical? And what will the public find acceptable? Seems like it may be time to revisit those questions. While it may be legal–and even good marketing–to utilize Big Data to personalize consumer experiences, is using information from conversations ethical or publicly acceptable? What do you think?