2013: Year of Big Data and Consumer Privacy

According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2013 marks the closing of the Year of the Dragon, and introduces us to the Year of the Snake. It also marks a year that will see a renewed emphasis placed on big data and privacy – for both marketers and consumers.

For those unfamiliar with big data or the “surveillance economy,” simply put: it’s “an every move you make, every breath you take,” businesses are watching you. Ok, not an actual Peeping Tom peering through your shades per se, but the calculated and mathematical algorithms consistently logging your online (and offline for that matter) activity. What information do they have on you? What you’re wearing – and what you’re not. Your spending habits, what you look like, your financial and health data, your likes, the color of your eyes, how fast you like to drive, your connections and even the TV shows you watch religiously – and those you don’t.

Most of this happens without consumers ever thinking twice about it. That’s where data brokers like Epsilon and Acxiom come in. Marketing and advertising budgets are not infinite, thus the need for collecting precise data that reflects the targeted market and strategic objectives of a campaign. Companies look to these data warehouses for the particulars needed to obtain a positive ROI.  It’s big money, and big data.

An article published last month in the New York Times reveals just how massive this aspect of marketing is – and how most consumers don’t even know it’s taking place. “The consumer data trade is large and largely unregulated. Companies and organizations in the United States spend more than $2 billion a year on third-party data about individuals.”

Is it legal? Yep, for now. The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation late last year targeting nine data brokers and their practices. Says FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz: “I don’t think most of us understand how it’s captured and transferred and monetized, but I think there is generally concern from consumers about that.”

He’s right.

What does this mean for the consumer? Well, several things really.

First, consumers are going to become more vigilant in the acquisition of their personal data and how it’s obtained. Social networking sites like Facebook will continue to erode consumer trust with their ongoing privacy policy changes. Will this lead to a mass exodus of users? Probably not, but this will fuel consumer empowerment and lead to new (and revitalize current) efforts to protect their information this year.  Additionally, watch for the eventual power shift. Consumers will be broadening their understanding of how their data is being used. This in turn will lead to consumers demanding more control of their own personal data.

Second, recognizing this surge in consumer activism, look for companies to offer more personal “data vault” solutions. There are already some in the works. Services like reputation.com, Personal and even a few credit score monitoring companies are offering their customers the ability to safeguard their personal data. To that, these services (some for a fee) offer consumers the control factor – they control and manage what data is released to marketers, and what’s not.

As our digital footprints continue to widen during 2013, it will be essential for consumers and marketers alike to become more stringent on the use of data. Consumers must be informed and educated on what information is collected and how it’s being used. Control is key. Marketers on the other hand must come to the realization that personal data should not be treated as the new hot commodity. Smart marketers will use data to properly and inconspicuously advertise to their consumer bases.

What are your thoughts? Will you subscribe to (or at least consider) using a data vault service? How do you feel about being part of a Target Market?