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The Data We Give Away

By Dave Convery,

Most data professionals are understandably cautious with the data in their care, but what about with the data they generate? This article about the “creepy” implications of email monitoring caught my eye, as this is one of the things I am responsible for in my job. For those who don’t know, marketing emails often track data about users that’s captured by an image server when the email is downloaded – the server logs when the image was downloaded, by what system, and so on. It’s used to track open rates and other metrics. Because we don’t use the information for anything untoward (I would probably be fired if I sent an email saying “Hey, I saw you opened our email at 2.45 on your iPhone”), I never really considered the fact that this is possible – and common – to be especially “creepy”. The author of the article clearly does, in part because the data was thrown into his colleague’s face as a demonstration of the tool an overenthusiastic PR was hawking.

Google’s Nexus 7 tablet has some features that are either incredibly clever and valuable, or skin-tighteningly creepy depending on your viewpoint. For example, the device’s accelerometer is used to measure your speed of travel. It then tells you how far you travelled by various means – between certain speeds are calculated as walking, cycling, and driving. It quickly realises where you work based on where you end up every weekday morning. It will give you traffic warnings based on this – undeniably a useful service, but it means that you are constantly generating location data that someone can use simply by moving. I’m not going to suggest that Google are going to start targeting people who abandon Google+ with their orbital lasers (let’s be honest, they’re going to use it to target advertising), but any organization having a comprehensive data on where you are and when is far from ideal for a lot of people.

It could even be argued that the whole point of selling dedicated hardware is to facilitate tracking – after all, you’re signed into your Google account, probably the same as you are with your desktop machines, and Google get a more comprehensive view of your online behaviour to target with, rather than that inconvenient fracturing when you switch to a device that isn't signed in.

We all know that there’s more data being stored than ever before, and with an increasing focus on Business Intelligence and big data, getting it and processing it is a big issue for companies. But it’s still worth being aware of what we’re giving away, especially when your every step can end up on someone’s server.

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