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The Green Sheet Online Edition

January 11, 2016 • Issue 16:01:01

Balancing big data and consumer privacy

By its Wikipedia definition, the term big data "requires a set of techniques and technologies with new forms of integration to reveal insights from datasets that are diverse, complex and of a massive scale." On the surface, this process sounds promising and seems fairly harmless at the individual level.

The advent of cloud technologies and the introduction of consumer devices that use the cloud to store personal information unleashed a worldwide fascination with the amount of data being stored in cyberspace. The ability to access unique data sets using the Internet, all captured through the Internet of Things (IoT) network of independent devices, was compelling. Suddenly, it was easier to crunch these data sources into useful business intelligence, a newfound realization that opened up a frontier of possibility. Companies could harness the power of big data to create better machines, develop more personalized services and pinpoint micro markets ‒ all of which are outcomes that focus on individuals.

Personalization versus too personal

Virtually overnight, a new field of big data software and products emerged with various adaptations of data gathering and crunching applications. Without much thought of where and how the data would be used for research and development, a great number of consumers embraced the newfangled technologies, thus filling up the databanks.

And while the cloud-driven data was a godsend for market intelligence, analytics and actuarial firms, access to finite personal data also provided infinite details about consumers' everyday habits. As a result, the practice of personalization emerged, and it has radically changed how product and service providers interact with their customers. The jury is still out on whether this practice is ethical; some even feel it has reached the point of becoming creepy.

According to a Demandware Inc. blog post, a 2015 report from ominchannel personalization platform RichRelevance stated, "On a scale of 'cool' to 'creepy' we found that consumers welcome retailers' help in discovering relevant products, finding coupons and navigating the store, but draw the line at tools that identify, target and track them using demographics or facial recognition."

A wealth of information

In the payments industry, we've been gathering personal information about consumers and their buying habits and have been storing it in digital vaults for over a decade. We've also kept the information under lock and key due to laws protecting certain private information gathered during a transaction.

At the same time, we've cultivated a specialized breed of technology expert that understands the intricacies of data stewardship but also has the wherewithal to easily mine data. As the demand for big data intelligence cascaded in the marketplace, some players in the industry realized they could use this expertise to develop groundbreaking POS marketing engines. This evolution propelled the payments industry into a place of prominence among other burgeoning fintech firms, an emerging market Inc. magazine marked as, "one of the most promising industries of 2015."

However, with recognition often comes greater scrutiny, and plenty of scrutiny pertaining to consumer privacy is brewing inside and outside the industry. The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 18, 2015, is already under fire by those who believe the bill opens the door for private businesses to share without reservations or oversight of consumers' personally identifiable information or other protected, sensitive data.

This public debate, along with other rising concerns about personalized marketing and how much personal information a company can gather undetected are hot topics lawmakers, trade associations and activists will consider in the coming year.

As big data practices and the number of personal devices attached to the IoT continue to expand, questions concerning consumer privacy and the exploitation of personal information will also be questioned. Inevitably, legislation will be introduced to govern private business data and security practices, much like government and financial entities have been subject to for decades. But who will initiate these efforts, and what measures will they take to define the line between fair marketing practices and cyber stalking? end of article

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