Big threats to personal privacy in the era of big data

The modern politician, even in a democracy, can now be almost certain to know how you voted by adding up what’s known about you

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By Allan Bonner
Columnist
and Brennen Schmidt
ALEUS Technology Group

In the days before computers, politicians still had a way to determine how much help they’d give you.

If you asked for a favour, many would look you up on the voter rolls to see if you’d voted. If so, there was at least a chance you’d voted for that politician. If you received the favour, there was an even better chance you’d vote again – and vote for that politician.

Even in Nazi Germany, there was a way to check you out. It was long before social media – in fact, the heyday of radio. Many citizens felt pressure to tune in to Adolf Hitler’s speeches to demonstrate they were good citizens and supporters of the regime. They wanted their neighbours to know of their standing and support. They turned up the radio volume so people in the hallways and next apartments would know that Hitler’s speeches were on their personal agendas.

Allan Bonner

Hence the term “totalitarian.” The regime was having total influence on the lives of its citizens – personal and professional, at home and work.

Let’s put all these elements together in the era of big data.

These days it’s pretty easy to check social media and Google you, your associates and co-workers to see if you’re a likely supporter. At the very least, it’s a way to determine if you’re a predictable voter.

Technology has long been able to tell us whether your TV set is on – and whether you’re in the room watching. Decades ago, “people meters” gave TV rating companies this valuable information. Today, Netflix does much the same by prompting viewers to respond to the question “Are you still watching?” after a certain period of time.

The modern politician, even in a democracy, can now be almost certain to know how you voted by adding up what’s known about you. Your address, magazine subscriptions, purchasing history, clubs, education and other data will result in a very good guess at your voting history.

Brennen Schmidt

Barack Obama’s successful 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign leveraged the power of data. Emails were sent with targeted messaging based on the voter’s interests or issues. Links within these emails enabled the campaign team to track whether a certain action was completed, such as making a donation or downloading a policy platform document.

This was a higher-tech version of Ronald Reagan sending out phonograph records of his speeches. And it was more targeted than the letters from the Richard Nixon campaign that were customized based on the recorded telephone messages that voters were encouraged to leave for the candidate.

Collecting, tracking, analyzing and responding to data has always been important, and will be more so in the digital age.

Pamphlets, newspapers, magazines and radio have all been kingmakers. Then it was TV and now it’s video. Recent elections have demonstrated the power of short video clips, edited to instil fear or anger in voters.

This is only the beginning.

These short clips go on social media to generate shares, likes and comments. The goal is not so much connection but amplification – the modern version of turning up the radio.

Given the power of data collection, will you start to watch what you post, what organizations you join and what magazines you buy? As in German radio, you might not listen, watch and read, but you might pretend you do. You might even go to meetings, sign up for a mailing list or click on a call-to-action button just to leave a digital trail.

This is why we need privacy protection, including rigorous measures to protect this data.

Dr. Allan Bonner, MSc, DBA, is a crisis manager based in Toronto. His forthcoming book is Cyber City Safe. Brennen Schmidt (BEd, Certiftied PR, CUA) is principal of the ALEUS Technology Group, a boutique digital communications firm in Regina.


threats to personal privacy, big data

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