In the HBO series Enlightened, Laura Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a former corporate executive who has a nervous breakdown. After returning from a health retreat in Hawaii to her employer, Abbadonn, a household product manufacturer, she discovers that she’s been reassigned. Formerly a buyer of health-and-beauty aids, Jellicoe now works in the bowels of the building as a data processor. Eventually she learns that she and her colleagues are working on a project called Cogentiva, an employee tracking system that allows Abbadonn to rank employees on productivity, as well as manipulate their work records in order to reduce overtime pay so the executives can double-dip bonuses. As one of Jellicoe’s colleagues says, the factory workers don’t realize that they are on an “electronic leash”, with every movement monitored and ranked.
Eerie. Far-fetched. It’s fiction, right?
Not to employees at Bank of America Corp. To discover how to goose productivity among their call centre staff, sensors were placed on badges and office furniture to record their movements and conversations. One discovery was that tight-knit teams were more productive so the company implemented group breaks, as well as larger tables in the cafeteria (good luck with that introverts!).
Big data has hit the big time. Yet, most of us are unaware how prevalent these electronic leashes are in our lives. Last year, an exposé on Target in The New York Times showed that the company uses powerful algorithms to know whether you or someone in your household is undergoing a life changing event, such as marriage or the birth of a child. In the story, an irate father demands to see the manager of his local Target after his high-school-age daughter received coupons for baby clothes and cribs. “Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” he demanded. A few days later, the store manager called the man again to apologize, at which point the father told him, “I had a talk with my daughter…she’s due in August.”
Companies sell information about you to third-parties all the time. Mostly this information is purchased, aggregated and sifted to discover how best to sell you stuff, both on- and offline. New programs will send you ads based on your previous searches across platforms. It’s called Real-Time Bidding or RTB. The ad you saw on Google when you were surfing the Web at work, will pop up again on your phone and your tablet, following you like a stray dog. For some people, their every task, email, calendar appointment or movie and TV show favourites will be tracked by Google if they buy one of the company’s recently launched Chromebook computers. They’re cheap, fast and they can accomplish most of the tasks you need on a daily basis, so long as you don’t mind being tied to Google’s products for the whole experience.
But it’s not all about selling. Algorithmic criminology is predictive policing. By crunching the data of past crime patterns, police forces can predict the likelihood of someone living in a certain area, being a felon. Based on searches of health topics, Google can predict flu vectors faster than the Centre for Disease Control. Google stores all its searches, so they also know whether you are concerned about head lice, diabetes or ‘hearing voices.’ That kind of information is valuable to a lot of folks like insurance companies, potential employers and Big Pharma.
Think you’ll only be tracked if you’re a member of Facebook or are signed-in to a Google product? Think again. Facebook recently acknowledged – after several previous denials – that they not only track their members’ activity on the web but also any other web user who has visited Facebook’s site in the last 90 days.
The big question about Big Data is who’s watching the watchers? Governments, who are no slouches in the snooping department themselves, are coming late to the game in terms of regulation. But industry watchers say it is inevitable that tighter controls are in the pipeline.
In the meantime, if Target sends someone in your household coupons for diapers and unscented body lotion, it’s time for a family sit-down.