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Privacy and Tracking

Besides the problems of predictive analytics—i.e., using data to make automated decisions about people—there are ethical problems with data collection itself. What is the relationship between the organizations collecting data and the people whose data is being collected?

When a system only stores data that a user has explicitly entered, because they want the system to store and process it in a certain way, the system is performing a service for the user: the user is the customer. But when a user’s activity is tracked and logged as a side effect of other things they are doing, the relationship is less clear. The service no longer just does what the user tells it to do, but it takes on interests of its own, which may conflict with the user’s interests.

Tracking behavioral data has become increasingly important for user-facing features of many online services: tracking which search results are clicked helps improve the ranking of search results; recommending “people who liked X also liked Y” helps users discover interesting and useful things; A/B tests and user flow analysis can help indicate how a user interface might be improved. Those features require some amount of tracking of user behavior, and users benefit from them.

However, depending on a company’s business model, tracking often doesn’t stop there. If the service is funded through advertising, the advertisers are the actual customers, and the users’ interests take second place. Tracking data becomes more detailed, analyses become further-reaching, and data is retained for a long time in order to build up detailed profiles of each person for marketing purposes.

Now the relationship between the company and the user whose data is being collected starts looking quite different. The user is given a free service and is coaxed into engaging with it as much as possible. The tracking of the user serves not primarily that individual, but rather the needs of the advertisers who are funding the service. I think this relationship can be appropriately described with a word that has more sinister connotations: surveillance.

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