WhatsApp and the Big Data Controversy

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“These days companies know literally everything about you, your friends, your interests, and they use it all to sell ads… Advertising isn’t just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought.”

Now, I’m sure if you’re to guess which company was publicly blogging about being so against the use of advertisements, you may have guessed correct a few months ago, but probably not now. Believe it or not, it was WhatsApp that released this blog, written by their creators, in 2012. Four years later, WhatsApp announced that it would begin showing in-app advertisements and pass your data along to Facebook to create more personalized advertisements for you on your social media accounts as well. But why is this important?

Do you ever find yourself shopping online, and next thing you know, you’re on Facebook with advertisements for the products you were just lusting after moments ago? This isn’t coincidental.

Data-mining is a subdivision of computer science which focuses on extremely large databases, known as “big data,” which may be used in creating pattern detection algorithms. These algorithms may be used to then analyze your recent searches, purchases, etc and predict what you may need or want next. This allows for advertisement companies to monopolize on this forecasted behavior and provide you with advertisements suited to what they believe you’ll next need most. And if you think these databases can’t really predict anything of worth about you or be used on a large scale, you’d be wrong.

Target tracks their customers with their GuestID system. They studied the typical purchases made by pregnant women, and surely enough, predicted a teen girl’s pregnancy before her own dad even knew. An online travel company called Orbitz marketed slightly higher prices to Apple product users after discovering that Apple-users tend to be willing to spend more on travel expenses. And these are only but a few examples.

Believe it or not, your data is important. To an advertisement company, data and demographics are everything. Why else would a company like Facebook spend billions on a mobile messaging application? And these advertisement companies probably know a lot more about you than you think.

So I guess the real question boils down to this: Is this practice of data-mining safe? Is our information really private? Can I opt out of having my data used?

Well, the answer isn’t that simple. There’s very little transparency within most companies about what data they collect, how they collect it and what they use it for. Many websites are able to collect your data via cookies, and then link that data to other websites which have cookies enabled as well. This may then generate a very large profile about you, your preferences, and your behaviors.

With this sort of data along with the complex algorithms to predict human behavior, it feels like some companies may know you better than you do. They may be able to predict certain lifestyle or hobby changes about you before you’re even aware of them. Sure, it sounds really cool that companies are able to create these sort of predictions, but do your really want your every move to be analyzed for marketing purposes? Personally, it makes me feel like most companies equate invading my privacy to one big dollar sign.

Data brokers are particularly notorious for going after your online information. Data brokers, also called information resellers, are businesses that collect peoples’ personal data to sell to other companies. These companies are able to collect even the most personal information about you, including things you didn’t know were even online: phone numbers, email addresses, home address, social media profiles, the names of your family members, and even things like the net worth of your home.

This collection of data can lead to an even more terrifying breach of your personal data. With the accessibility of Google Maps, it’s simple to find exactly what your home looks like from the outside. Websites like EXIF allow for your photos to be analyzed and include the specific GPS coordinates of the location the photo was taken, along with the camera it was taken on (even if that was just an iPhone). In the hands of the wrong people, would we ever be able to have a “private” life again? I think not.

So is WhatsApp’s decision to install in-app advertisements and send your data to Facebook an issue? Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal, and maybe that’s true considering that they’re only taking one step that most companies already have. But in all honesty,  I surely don’t want my data being sent off just for the sake of a company making more money. Next time you sign onto you social media accounts or use applications like WhatsApp, will you be more cautious of the data other companies are receiving? Keeping your data private is key, so make sure you stay safe and as protected as possible by keeping your social media accounts private and always opting-out of having your data used when you can! Stay private, everyone!

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Wessex Scene Online Manager 2015-2016, Head of Design 2016-2017

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