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Through a glass darkly

Simon Maier with some big questions on big data

We are led to assume that Cambridge Analytics did help to influence the US election and the EU referendum by mining data from Facebook, using it to predict over 80m personalities and then tailoring advertising to match their profiles. That story gives us a peek into a possible dystopian future, where data protection will be weaker or non-existent. Should we be worried? More worried? Is big data being used to create personalised advertising that alters the way we vote, buy or behave?

Online information already lends itself to manipulation. Big data is still fairly new, so over the next few years information about us all could become an even more powerful tool for manipulating the decisions we make. Our capacity to resist manipulation is limited. Clever word usage and smart question formats can confuse use – and the use of triggers in digital messaging can compromise our judgement.

Big money exercises power over political and commercial systems. There are also well-funded lobby groups, often disguised as helpful bodies and cheerful associations. Fake online sites would have us believe that huge numbers of people support political, news or commercial stories. In some countries people’s online activities are allegedly monitored to determine how compliant their citizens are and whether they qualify for travel privileges, employment or mortgages. 

That which we believe is kept confidential, isn’t, despite recent legislation. And, in our own industry, clients are led to believe that their delegates’ information is confidential. Is it? Most events, conferences and congresses have very high-profile or influential delegates. Are the systems we use safe? Fail-safe safe? Can the content be compromised? Do we think that the word ‘again’ should be added?