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Inside the Personal Data Economy Part One: Is Privacy a Myth?

Have you ever been scrolling through Amazon and clicked on a great new pair of sunglasses, only to find an advertisement for that exact same pair of sunglasses pop up in your Facebook feed later that day? If so, me too.

Have you ever tried to convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, this was a coincidence? Again, me too.

Unfortunately, it was not a coincidence.

As consumers, we are constantly being tracked – and data is constantly being collected about us. As the digital era progresses and technologies such as AI and machine learning become more and more advanced, our data is becoming more and more valuable. Liam Hanham, the director of data science at Elicit notes that “[c]ustomer data can be collected in three ways – by directly asking customers, by indirectly tracking customers, and by appending other sources of customer data to your own… a robust business strategy needs all three.” 

Essentially, what this means is when you purchase a company’s product and fill out your name, email, address, and credit card number, that information will likely be stored and processed by that company. When you open a website, that website is most likely equipped with cookies and web beacons which give companies full access to your past and ongoing browsing history. When you open an email from a business, that email is probably tracking when, where, and with what device you accessed this email.  

Okay, you get the point.

For those of you who have dipped your toes into the pool of big data or marketing analytics, this may not come as a shock. Consumer data is used for a wide variety of purposes – such as improving web engagement, customer relationships, and marketing strategies. In fact, here at GXG, we are constantly helping business to get “unstuck” on their big data initiatives. The field of big data fuels innovation and progress on a daily basis – it’s crucial for businesses to stay up to date on the latest trends and developments.

However, for the lay consumer, big data is big news.

What often feels most startling to consumers is that not only is personal data being collected but there are also data brokers, which are companies that exist for the sole purpose of storing, buying, and selling large corpuses of consumer data. There is a hefty price tag on personal data – and that is why these practices are often referred to as the personal data economy.

Who knew? Well, most consumers don’t. That’s the problem. This data is often collected and processed without clear and explicit consumer consent. However, this may not be the case for much longer.

The European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May of 2018 – and the state of California has followed in its footsteps with a similar regulation, the California Consumer Privacy Act going into full effect in January of 2020. The goal of these regulations is to ensure that companies obtain explicit consent from consumers before collecting their data and to provide consumers with greater control over exactly what data is collected and how that data is being used.

For the consumer, these regulations feel like a lifesaver. However, the introduction of data protection regulations has sent business-owners, academics, and policymakers into quite a frenzy. These regulations are the hot topic for debate across a wide range of industries.

To find out more about how these regulations will affect you as a business-owner, an employee, or a consumer– and why there is such heated debate on the topic, keep an eye out for the next two posts in our personal data blog series.

Sarah Duggan is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Quantitative Sciences at Emory University.