Companies are assembling more detailed pictures of their customers than ever before. Tesco, a British retailer, collects 1.5 billion nuggets of data every month and uses them to adjust prices and promotions. Williams-Sonoma, an American retailer, uses its knowledge of its 60m customers (which includes such details as their income and the value of their houses) to produce different iterations of its catalogue. Amazon, an online retailer, has claimed that 30% of its sales are generated by its recommendation engine (“you may also like”). The mobile revolution adds a new dimension to customer-targeting. Companies such as America’s Placecast are developing technologies that allow them to track potential consumers and send them enticing offers when they get within a few yards of a Starbucks.
After a detailed study of its clients, the German Federal Labour Agency managed to cut its annual spending by €10 billion ($14 billion) over three years while also reducing the length of time people spent out of work.
That’s real savings, particularly in a time of “austerity measures”.
But I see no reason why such power can’t be harnessed by a desktop user. As storage and processing costs go down, access opens up. It has to, or the margins decrease. Security risks go up and there are more data points on you than cells in your body. It’s not just the volume of data, but what’s being collected. You’re car insurance is no longer based on your age, sex, income and zip code, but now it’s based on how fast the GPS in your car says you drive, how often and hard you hit the breaks and how sharply you turn. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know, but it’s a tad thought-provoking to me. After all, my neighbor’s cat keeps think it’s a lion and my car is a gazelle.
Don’t think this isn’t coming (or even already here). IBM is investing $100 million in advanced large scale analytics. This MIT Technology Review article calls for a “big data” code of ethics. The principles will be familiar to any seasoned privacy professional.