OPINION19 August 2011

Genning up on the big data privacy debate

On Monday, there’s an online debate being held to discuss the issue of research and data privacy in a social media world. We’ll be covering the highlights on Tuesday – but if you’re planning to listen in, here’s some weekend reading for you in preparation for the event.

The best place to start is with the Esomar and Casro social media guidelines and the MRS discussion paper on online privacy, the publications of which were the catalyst for this debate – and which spurred a frustrated response from Michalis Michael over on the DigitalMR blog.

Ray Poynter (now of Vision Critical) also wrote a blog post in response, arguing that “we need to change the whole of commercial market research to match the 21st Century, rather than try to keep shoehorning the new world into the old constructs”.

I disagreed, arguing in my own comment piece that the very ethics Poynter questions the need for – in particular anonymity and informed consent – are the very things consumers are now demanding from the advertisers who track their web behaviour without permission and use that data to build up profiles for targeted advertising. Why wouldn’t they expect the same of researchers, even though researchers aren’t engaged in selling?

Research Now’s Annie Pettit makes the point on her LoveStats blog that what researchers are engaged in in social media is no different to that practised by psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists – who can observe and study people in a public place without informed consent provided they do no harm and respect the subject.

“Do no harm” is a core ethical principle that Reg Baker of Market Strategies does not want to see abandoned. “The larger worry for me,” he writes in his Survey Geek blog, “is the deaf ear many in the industry are turning to the public’s obvious concern about online privacy. The regular dust-ups we see when this site or that site changes its privacy policy should be all the evidence we need to convince us that people genuinely care about this stuff.”

Once you’ve read all that, head on over to the Greenbook Blog to register for the debate, and don’t forget to have your say.



13 years ago

While Annie makes a valid point about psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists being able to observe and study people in public places, such observations are a single occurrence. What if said professionals were to them follow those people observed to their homes, pry in their windows, look through their letterbox, or even obtain access to their homes? We'd call that stalking. I posit that a single online tracking event is equivalent to Annie's scenario, but that the current tracking is equivalent to stalking.

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13 years ago

John when we perform web listening we do it in the public domain it is not comparable to prying through windows or looking through letter boxes (which by the way is illegal and no-one is suggesting to do anything illegal here).

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13 years ago

An important attribute is omitted here, that of intent of the data owner themselves. Social network sites have long had a dubious security posture in which they obscure the security capabilities giving the illusion of protection, or they regularly change the policies exposing information against the intent of the information holder. Ultimately the arguments above gravitates around public and private, the challenge is that some public data was intended to be private. Would it be wrong to use data that was gathered through a breach and published on a public site? Does the marketing firm even factor this information in? or do they consider incidental breaches public information. I could make an argument by leveraging the data they are accessories to the breach action. Unfortunately, the technology of today is complex as a result we have to move away from simplistic arguments such as public/private and focus in on intent.

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