Sunday, 9 June 2013

How much is personal information really worth?

The current uproar concerning America's National Security Act - where government has been listening in on phone calls, accessing emails and heaven knows what else - has many thinking that they're under constant surveillance.  Yet in spite of this "constant surveillance" authorities couldn't stop two amateur terrorist suspects from wreaking havoc at this year's Boston Marathon.

Russia even issued a warning to America a few years back about these suspects, but between the time of the warning and countless other terrorism suspects that were analyzed since that warning, one can only assume that the Boston bombers' profiles were placed at the bottom of a huge pile, lost in a sea of other suspects.

They say that knowledge and information is power.  But at the risk of sounding ignorant I feel that the power of information is overrated.  We presently have two problems with information:

#1: There's too much of information on too many people (emails, social media activity, web browsing history, instant messages, phone calls).
#2: Of this large volume of information, a high percentage of it is superficial and meaningless.

Marketing companies and departments for instance do everything they can to farm data about consumers.  They then try to categorise a person using metrics like page views and answers to online quizzes to predict what products a person is most likely to buy next.  This isn't a futile exercise, but assuming that it's effective to advertise a camera to someone who simply listed photography as a hobby on their Facebook profile is often a shot in the dark.  Many people who claim to enjoy photography are perfectly satisfied with their camera phone equipped with Instagram; stating that they like photography doesn't mean they're looking to buy a camera.

People say many things over social media and instant messaging services.  They share what they eat, the places they visit, and regularly exchange inconsequential information.  Plotting all these activities on a chart or into an algorithm to predict a person's behavior is flawed because:

#1: People do many things based on their moods or whims.
#2: Just because someone did, liked or consumed something once, it doesn't mean they will do it again any time soon.

Marketers are profiling individual consumers based on an avalanche of irrelevant information.  Researchers can't even agree on the value of a Facebook "Like." Between different research companies the value ranges from $214 to $0.  I will re-iterate: we do many things online: we like and follow many things out of mild curiosity, but in real life many are nothing like their online personas.  My friends "Like" the silliest of pages on Facebook, but in real life they would never indulge what they claim to like online.  One friend "Likes" the Samsung Mobile page for the competitions but proclaims the iPhone to be superior and the Samsung Galaxy phones to be "junk."

Intelligence agencies are run by people who are assisted by computers.  The fact that they couldn't pre-empt the 9/11 attackers or a teenager and his brother tells us that like most employees the people at these agencies are drowned in a sea of information.  Trying to find a legitimate suspect really is like finding a needle in a haystack.  Profiling people based on their online activity is little easier.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg can't get rid of the stigma that he doesn't care about user privacy, and some instant messages uncovered from when he was an immature twenty year old and Facebook was a small service limited to Harvard students only are now being used as "proof" that he's a sociopath who doesn't care about users.  We're constructing entire characters out of people we don't know based on some soundbites, emails or instant messages.

We over-estimate the significance of what people do online.  People are just people: we talk a lot, share a lot (often too much) and most of what we discuss is ultimately inconsequential.  Our moods change and what was fun or cool last week may not be so enticing this week.  To try to glean something meaningful from our expansive online footprints is a high volume, low yield exercise.  We click things out of curiosity much more often than out of genuine interest.

This is not to say that information must be ignored, but you can spend several lifetimes looking at the wrong information.  Sensitive information like online passwords and banking details are critical.  But one has to be able to be more selective about the information they consume and most importantly remember that what you glean from someone online can translate to very little relevance in real life.

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