Social Media Information Fuels Big Data

Regina M. Joseph

Regina M. Joseph

Want your ads to get the most value for your hard-earned dollars? You might be looking into purchasing market intelligence. Aggregators mine data from social media and governmental sources, analyze trends, and then sell their predictions of consumer behavior. They can be scarily accurate.

But be wary of inadvertently obtaining consumers’ personally identifiable information (“PIN”). Mistakes happen, and can be costly. (E.g., Tracking Software Company Settles FTC Charges That it Deceived Consumers and Failed to Safeguard Sensitive Data it Collected)  Disclosure of personal information has led to class actions suits. (See, e.g., Seventh Circuit Allows a Worldwide Privacy Class Containing Tens of Millions of Plaintiffs to Proceed to Trial as a Class Action).

Apart from rules protecting PIN, There are presently few regulations, while the government studies the growing practices of “Big Data.”

For example, in May 2014, the Federal Trade Commission issued its study, “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.” The study analyzed information obtained from nine data brokers: Acxiom, Corelogic, Dtalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf, and Recorded Future. Although not all brokers directly mine social media data, since they share data, it ends up in their databases.

After collection, this data is analyzed and sold as products in three broad categories: marketing, risk mitigation, and people search. Of these, marketing is by far the most lucrative. Customers’ identifying information is condensed into minute categories, including with health care implications, such as “Cholesterol Focus,” “Lenses or Contacts,” “Buyer Disability Insurance,” and “Geriatric Supplies” (See Appendix B). Some categories also provide racial information.

It was reported that PeekYou collects content from over 60 social media sites, news sources, homepages, and blog platforms to provide clients with detailed consumer profiles. Acxiom reports that its databases contain information about 700 million consumers worldwide with over ,000 data segments for nearly every U.S. consumer (p.8.) Datalogix provides businesses with marketing data on almost every U.S. household and more than $1 trillion in consumer transactions. In September 2012, Facebook announced a partnership with Datalogix.

The study provides fascinating reading. Further, the study provides a cautionary tale, especially regarding personal information. As well as suggesting legislative initiatives to increase privacy protection, the FTC called upon the data broker industry to consider privacy issues at every stage of its product development. It also encouraged data brokers to implement better measures to refrain from collecting information from children and teens, particularly in marketing products. This is in addition to privacy guidelines set forth by the FTC in a March 2012 report.

The FTC also recommended that data brokers take reasonable precautions to ensure that downstream users of their data do not use it for eligibility determinations or for unlawful discriminatory purposes. Frequently, however, this is implemented by little more than a contractual covenant to use the acquired data for lawful purposes, without any guidance to the recipient on what personally identifiable information may be contained (intentionally or inadvertently) in the data package and what the applicable laws may be (e.g., Fair Credit Reporting Act; and HIPAA).

The White House did its own study. Its report, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” was also released in May 2014 (The Big Data Review). It cited several examples of big data analysis driving productivity, thwarting terrorists, and saving lives by determining infection pathways. Conversely, the report cited the potential for discriminatory analysis. Its chief recommendations for enforcement agencies were to apply existing privacy laws and to do monitor for discriminatory practices derived from reliance on Big Data.

The public expressed greater concern to the White House:

Big Data blog post image

These studies are, of course, the government’s first dipping of their toes into these new technologies. Expect much more to come.