The online advertising industry is frequently described as part of an “ecosystem.” I’m a bit of a science nerd, so I can’t help but pause whenever I hear “ecosystem” used in a setting so far removed from ecology. I guess such usage is meant to draw attention to the scale and interconnectedness of this complex web of technical, economic and social interactions. But I always find myself wondering things like: If there is a data ecosystem, is it a closed or open system? Are consumers classified as primary producers? Is Facebook an apex predator? Are there trophic cascades?
A recent report from Cracked Labs, written by Wolfie Christl, makes heavy use of this ecosystem metaphor. "Corporate Surveillance in Everyday Life" is an attempt to outline and summarize the “structure and scope” of “today’s personal data ecosystem.” Filled with a variety of colorful infographics about data collection, predictive analytics and the relation between major players in the personal data industry, the report is a useful overview of this incredibly complex collection of business relationships and data flows. As such, it serves as a great introduction to the day-to-day mechanics of personal data — perhaps even something to send my uncle who still thinks I’m a “computer lawyer.”
The report is thorough and well researched, with dozens of citations to social science studies about potential uses for behavioral data. One that struck me: A study that found subject’s moods could be predictably inferred from the timing of key presses on their keyboard. (The stories my keyboard could tell.) There are also many specific examples of the promises and achievements of data analytics in the hyper-connected and data-rich environment of online advertising. The sheer number of data subjects involved can be a shock. The largest data brokers and online platforms each claim to provide access to between two and five billion consumer profiles.
Importantly, the report provides a relatively clear and concise description of big data’s “side effects,” such as pervasive real-time social sorting, data-driven persuasion, and the information asymmetries between data companies and consumers. And it documents the significant increase in surveillance brought about by the confluence of data gathered on consumer behavior online and offline, pointing out several notable mergers and acquisitions that brought the marketing methods of traditional media into cyberspace.
The Corporate Surveillance report paints a wide-format picture of just what sort of “ecosystem” we mean when we use this word in the context of personal data and online advertising. By way of demonstration, allow me to stretch the metaphor past its breaking point.
As its necessary inputs, the data ecosystem eschews sunlight, water and minerals in favor of data: personal data, contextual data and behavioral data. Like sunlight, data is an abundantly produced resource, but it must be heavily processed before it can be used by many of this digital ecosystem’s denizens. In fact, only certain types of entities — data collectors like web browsers, mobile apps, platforms, ISPs, retailers, and others — have the right position in relation to data subjects to collect this pure input and convert it into a useful form. Through collecting and processing data (which at times seems as complicated as photosynthesis), the raw material is converted into insights and inferences about data subjects. Data collection entities use this processed data to provide their own services and sometimes generate advertising revenue.
Higher up the data food chain are a set of entities that graze on many different types of data inputs from a variety of sources, ingesting the outputs of data collectors and combining them into still more complex insights. As the Corporate Surveillance report describes in detail, this remarkably diverse set of entities include data brokers, data analytics companies, customer management services, ad networks and health analytics companies. They aggregate data to generate a wide range of valuable products, from predictive models to advertising profiles to identity matching services. And still higher up, the omnivorous advertisers pick out the products that best suit their needs.
Well, the metaphor needs some work. But I promise the report is a great addition to any privacy pro’s digital library.
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