Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ideas inspired by kai and Molly's "the surveillance economy"

It's Good Friday, a national holiday here in Canada.  No significant plans for the day - I love it.  Just got back from walking my dog while listening to this week's podcast episode of Make Me Smart - titled "the surveillance economy".  So many ideas I'm now scrambling to record before they leak out of this old brain of mine.

I work for a software company that innovates and sells encryption technologies.  Many times a week I try and explain to companies and organizations that we can help protect personally identifiable information (PII) while retaining the analytic value of their data.  Many global customers are either required to protect PII for regulatory (legal) reasons, such as the upcoming GDPR in the EU, while others wish to reduce the risk and associated cost of a data breach.  But, these same companies are also trying to get the most out of their data, trying to understand their customers better, how to cross-sell their products and services, or to find and cut back fraud.

Now let me try an segue into the news of the last few weeks about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.  I like buying stuff.  I like good advertising.  And I am influenced by advertising.  I believe it's very hard to avoid advertising and I find it a waste of space and time when I see something that I have no interest in.  How many more ads for bowel issues and reverse mortgages do I need to see when watching  TV news channels.  But on the flip side, I find it incredibly unsettling when I see an ad online for a specific product I researched just seconds ago.

Another tangent into the brilliant mind and writings of Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus.  In the later, Homo Deus, if I try to paraphrase and interpret one of Yuval's closing arguments - the impact of any one of us on the world today is diminishing and assuming your scientific beliefs eliminate the possibility of an afterlife, then what will be our legacy and what is our contribution to society?  Yuval focused on the information age, i.e. data.  We can contribute data, information, ideas, art and knowledge to an incredibly massive amount of people, perhaps all of mankind through this thing called the internet.  I am truly on that side of the fence, I do share lots of things with many people and feel I'm contributing a little to "the greater good".  I believe it's an incredible waste of one's life to keep all your passions, learnings and creations to yourself - isn't that rather selfish.  Needless to say, I'm not a very private person.

Back to my work life.  Along with many companies that wish to get more value from their data, there are just as many who wish to share their data with third party business-to-business partners.  I'm sure much of this is with advertisers, but the optimist in me believes that some of these partners are in the field of research and are perhaps trying to improve our well-being.  For example, large health insurers have massive amounts of data that can help with the research into drug interaction and root causes of disease.  Wouldn't you want to share some of your health data if it could help your neighbour or world populations?

It's natural that the more I share, the more people (and companies) know about me.  That's the deal.  Although a lot of what I share is under the somewhat psuedoanymized alias of PJMixer, it doesn't take a data scientist to figure out my real identity.  But I digress.  I feel the problem comes down to the granularity of information and precision to which advertisers target consumers.  

In my work with encryption, we are creating new ways to vary the degree to which data can be protected with the goal to protect PII, but increase the statistical value of the data once it's protected.  For example, telco and auto companies record geo-location data about us all day long.  The precise coordinates of my home and where I am at any one point in time is of course very private.  And similarly, the fact that the government knows my date of birth and that Air Canada knows the date of my flight to Winnipeg this year is data I'd prefer non-friends didn't know. But is there a major concern if you know I live in Toronto and I traveled to Chicago in the last 6 months?  Or that I am male and was born in the 60's?  That's useful, monetizable information for airlines and hotels as well as for Health Canada and the CDC.  That is something I don't mind sharing and then as a consequence perhaps seeing more ads for airlines and hotels than diapers or feminine hygiene products.  Maybe statisticians in 500 years would find it useful to know that there were large numbers of men in their fifties that traveled regularly from Toronto to Chicago in the years 2010 to 2019.  And what about those colourful student paintings on the windows between Ohare's terminals 1 and 2 - shouldn't everyone have a chance to see that beauty?