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“That Robot is such a Bigot!”

May 31, 2016 At 12:00pm by: Peter Costa

The White House blog post “Big Risks, Big Opportunities” summarized a White House report highlighting some of the consequences that big data and machine learning will have on our everyday lives.  The hope is to create awareness in how to better harness this new power and mitigate the legitimate potential issues with respect to civil liberties, privacy and opportunity.  But does the White House have a point?  If the power of big data is left unchecked, there’s a risk of perpetuating discrimination and bias within the very scripting of these algorithmic systems.  An example would be how advertisements are tailored to us on all of our social media platforms and email alerts.  Basically using all available information and passive data collection to “segment” or “label” you and put you in a box to sell you something in a box.   Every time you search the web for a product, like something on Facebook, re-tweet a post, you can be sure that there’s some machine learning algorithm combing and filtering through your choices and creating a cyber fingerprint of all of us.  The fear is that there will be obvious gaps where potential discrimination could occur, therefore your cyber self is a poor stereotype of who you truly are and represent.  As a foodie, with an Italian background, that could mean I’m handcuffed to only receive Rosa’s Italian restaurant meatball bonanza specials, and never see my Indo-Chinese favorite “all you can eat” buffet promotions!

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From these early algorithms, to the creation of advanced big data machine learning, Artificial Intelligence seems to be evolving and becoming ever more ubiquitous with our current technology integration.  Hollywood’s ominous portrayals of how the final birth of AI will forever impact humanity doesn’t evoke too much confidence.  Let’s face it, the Terminator and SkyNet are closer to reality than ever before.  Why do they always end up wanting to kill us to save us? AI’s early ancestry consists of inputs, coding and ultimate framework that are being constructed by the most flawed, biased and destructive creatures to inhabit the blue dot – us.  Are we able to ensure we instill the best of us for the pursuit of a better tomorrow, Siri?

Clash of the Privacy Philosophies

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I have just read a fantastic article in the New York Times. I haven’t seen the differing philosophies around privacy articulated better.  Max Schrems has done a wonderful by making this intangible, inanimate issue animated!

‘Where consumers are asked to read and agree to a company’s terms of service and decide what’s best for themselves. Max Schrems explains that “We only do this in the privacy field — dump all the responsibility on the user,” he also points out that consumers are not expected to make decisions about other complex issues, like food or building safety. “In a civilized society,” he said, “you expect that if you walk into a building it’s not going to collapse on your head.” Max Schrems’

 

 

Who knew! God wants your mobile data too

Cartoon God

So long story short I stumbled across a great site for you to check out privacy ratings called PrivacyGrade.  I actually found this through reading an article by Kim Komando highlighting the cost to our privacy when we acquire free apps.  Of course some apps need our personal information such as google maps, but what about apps like the Despicable Me game or Fruit Ninja? Why on God’s earth do they need this information?  Speaking of God… more on that later.

We all know we don’t read the terms and conditions and unless you are on iOS you can’t set your own privacy settings on a case by case basis. This is where PrivacyGrade can help and it is run by a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University who have devised a simple grading system from A+ to D.  This grading model measures the gap between our expectations of privacy behavior vs the actual behavior.

For example when you download Google Maps you know they will need access to your location data, or Gmail will need access to your contacts to make sending emails easier, you know what to expect and therefor both these apps get an A.  “It does what it says on the tin” so to speak.

In terms of the low scorers the most surprising was the #1 Holy Bible app which scored a D, the lowest grade.  This app’s permissions require full access to your network, your user accounts, your phone status and identity, can read your contacts and track your approximate location.  Not only that but you also give permissions to third parties such as Flurry, Facebook, Tapjoy, Jsoup and Oauth!  Who would have thought catching up on ‘His Word’  would require so much of your passive data.

Also concerning is the related app Bible for Kids which requires the same permissions. This was graded C which I don’t understand as the details are pretty much the same and I would have thought that our expectations would be stronger around privacy considering the target audience.  Targeted advertising to your kids anyone?

If you can’t be bothered to read the T&C’s check out the Privacy Guide

 

 

 

What would you do for a cookie?

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It has been while since my last post so this story may feel a little old but a discussion last week made me reconsider the whys.

The story concerns Risa Puno giving away free (edible) cookies in return for personal and sensitive information at a Brooklyn Arts Festival.  380 New Yorkers were willing to give away their finger prints, partial social security numbers and have their photos taken without any explanation to what would happen with their information.  In fact if and when they did ask she would refer them to her terms of notice which was a page of small legalese giving her the right to share their information with third parties.

Isn’t this completely irrational?  OK the cookies looked pretty cool and probably tasted awesome but still it is completely illogical to give something so private away especially when it can be shared with anyone.  Do people lose all common sense and thought when it comes to a freebie?  The answer is obviously yes AND we all do it all the time and not just for a freebie but for convenience?  I don’t necessarily believe in mass irrational behavior though, having read Irving Goffman’s ‘Asylums’ he outlines how we take on roles to cope within our environment.  He describes these irrational rituals as institutionalization and quickly I began to see the rational within some of the odd habits you can see exhibited by patients within a medical institution.

On this basis I ask myself how we are conditioned or institutionalized to offer up some of our most personal information so easily and exhibit this irrational ritual nearly every day.

Last week at the TMRE conference I listened to Charles Duhigg talk about his book ‘The Power of Habit’.  I have read his book before but listening to him again reminded me of the cookie story.  To summarize, our habits are formed from cue’s and rewards.  Take the lab rat experiment conducted by Ann Graybiel. This is where a rat is placed in a T-shaped maze with the rat behind a barrier and chocolate at the end, when the barrier goes up there is a click and the rat finds the chocolate and then eats the chocolate.  The first time this happened it actually took him a long time to figure out where the chocolate was but as predicted each time he repeated the experiment he got faster and faster.  What became interesting were the measurements recorded of the rats brain activity during the experiments, at the beginning the brain activity showed high peaks right from the click of the barrier through to him eating the chocolate, but with each experiment the brain activity dropped between the click and the eating of the chocolate.  Over time the rat was literally able to follow the routine between the cue and reward without any brain activity – he had stopped thinking and acted on pure habit.

habit-loop

We do this all the time and I am sure you can remember a situation like arriving at work or home thinking ‘how did I get here’?- we literally switch off and go into a trance when something is routine enough, be it the gym, shopping or scarily the drive home.  Is this our institutionalization when it comes to giving our information away?  we are doing it every day, each time we go online, each time we purchase and each time we use our store cards, it has become so routine now that even cues and rewards aren’t necessary. This is such a bad habit that our lives can’t really function without doing it, we have agreed to these rituals to function effectively in our world.

Do you think it is rational or irrational to give your information away so freely?

 

 

 

 

Take back your privacy – Get Some Gusto

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“In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?” Al Gore

I read an interesting article on research-live today about a YouGov study that indicates that over 30% of people in the UK have deleted apps on their phone due to worries that their information is being sold or over-used.

It makes me ask myself if Europe is ahead of the curve not only in individuals concerns over privacy but more importantly the movement to get consumers to take control of their data.  When researching online I find much more information coming from organisations like Mydex or Ctrl-Shift who are based in the UK; not to mention European data protection laws being the most stringent in the world.

I was at an entrepreneur event in North Carolina last week and was speaking to company who had developed a PIMS app (personal information management services).  This app acts like a broker for individuals who wish to sell their own personal information which is collected passively on their phone.  It also gives the individual the ability to decide what  information can and cannot be sold which would automatically adjust the overall value.  A very smart tool that gives the individual complete transparency, control and reward.  The problem is the chicken and the egg; do you build a crowd of people before you have clients to sell the data to, only to risk losing them because there is no one bidding for their data?  Or do you need the client investment first which is hard considering you don’t have anything to sell yet?

There needs to be more gusto from the consumer in order for this to be solved, and this requires education about our privacy and what is currently happening with our data.  With this knowledge will come the customer desire for change, as the customer changes so too does the industry.

This is where I see the UK, quite frankly, kicking some butt in terms of education and forward thinking.  If I am wrong and you are aware of more high profile agencies in the Americas I would love to hear about them.

 

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The Wonderful Wizards of Advertising

Diet products and supplement advertising is really a sordid and manipulative industry.  I have fallen for it with the Wild Rose diet and I bought the Atkins book (he was a doctor wasn’t he?).  Yes they worked but because there wasn’t much that I wanted to eat from the permissible food list; hence I ate less.  But are they sustainable?  Hell no, I like my chocolate, cheese, bread, pasta…..

What does this have to do with us controlling our personal information?  The more companies know about you the more they can target you specifically through your current emotion or activity.  For example on Facebook you can put in your status how you are feeling (this is coded for easy analysis by the way), reading, eating, watching etc.  If you were to put in ‘feeling sad’ and ‘eating cake’ you are probably going to be targeted for the Garcinia Cambogia pill or chair gym – yep you can look fabulous without leaving your chair!  What we buy is an emotional thing, we are not really the rational beings we think we are when buying stuff, if it isn’t emotional that it is probably habit.

I was being completely irrational and very emotional when buying the Wild Rose and Atkins books.  I have never believed in diets, I don’t like diets and I always scoff at others who do them so what made me do this?  I am so bombarded by images in advertising that makes me feel bad but gives me hope, there is a wide range of feelings that weight loss advertising evokes in me.

1 – Fear, although not overweight I am a bit of an apple shape which apparently puts me at higher risk of heart disease!  I don’t want to get heart disease

2 –Insecurity.  Images of young, beautiful and happy girls with the perfect body!  Yep I want that!  I want to wear a bikini and run down the beach with confidence without feeling my belly rise and fall at the opposite time to the rest of my body

3 – Living the dream.  These ads make me feel like I can’t be truly happy until I get down to that perfect weight (for me that is 115lbs – ridiculous).  Anyone who doesn’t think they would be happier if they were thinner are in the minority.  For me it’s like buying the lottery ticket and imagining what I will do with the winnings.  With being thinner I imagine all the wonderful clothes I would wear and all the places I would wear them.  Super happy and super confident.

4 – Dazzled by science.  There is always a new study or a new specialist out there who wants to tell us a new quick fix to getting the perfect bod!  It must be true its science; these pills really will speed up my metabolism or absorb the fat so that it isn’t absorb into our bodies and I get to eat what I want.

5 – Trust– Well Doctor Oz said its true so it must be right?  Celebrities and celebrity doctors are in our homes through the TV, we think we know them and we think we can trust them.  We have either seen them work off their own weight and have found that miracle or they are doctors who we have already put on the pedal stool of honesty.  This was never more perfectly ripped to pieces than by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight.  I hope you watched the video not only because it is so hilarious but also because ‘Morning Joe’ so beautifully epitomizes how irrational we are.

 

 

 

She’s having a baby! Your local retailer probably knows before your friends do

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To all of you who think that you are not impacted or influenced or manipulated even, by corporates, ask the father of a Minneapolis girl who kept receiving pregnancy promotions from Target. It got to the point where he went into the store to complain to the manager explaining how unethical it was to promote pregnancy and baby products to a teenager. The manager apologized profusely and could clearly see that they had in fact been sending these promotions to the girl. What transpired next has become famous within the research world, when the store manager followed up with a courtesy call a couple of weeks later the father confessed that his daughter was actually pregnant. The store was absolutely spot on in their prediction and were hustling to be the go-to store for the soon-to-be family.

This is an oldie but goodie example that has done the rounds several times in the market research world, but for someone outside of the industry it is probably surprising.

Retailers are competing for your loyalty and in the arms race are recruiting data scientists to analyze your behavior and habits to predict and influence your future spend. Influence is the real challenge for retailers because our spending habits are ingrained into our psyche. It is likely that you’re subconsciously drawn to buy the same laundry detergent that your mother used when you were little for example. But there are periods where we are more likely to change our shopping habits and during pregnancy is one of them. Like most new parents, time and alertness is going to be tight as they adapt to wonders of child rearing. Decision making will hinge on convenience and preserving their most valued asset, time. Separate trips to the grocers, shopping malls, electronic stores, will most likely be bundled into one big box Department store, such as Target or Walmart. With birth records being public, aside from all the online scraping and text analytic algorithms new parents are targeted prey, usually bombarded just after the birth of their child,

How do they know when someone is pregnant? Let’s set the background

As a customer of a store you are given an ID linked to your credit card. This ID is used to uniquely identify you, your history and all future purchasing and habits.  Under this ID, linkages can be made to your personal information such as age, marital status and estimated salary

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as they can have access to direct or inferred information on the Credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. “Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.)” Charles Duhigg ‘How Companies Learn your Secrets’ 2012

This information is then analyzed by data scientists (the new sexy in market research) whose job is to translate your behavior into predictive models that inform the marketing depts.

Target is advanced in this particularly around expectant mums and figured out that there were 25 purchases when combined that could predict not only pregnancy but what trimester the mother was in and expected due date. These purchases were things like vitamins and supplements, hand sanitizer, unscented soaps and lotions etc… on their own these data points aren’t enough of an indicator but together they were extraordinarily powerful and telling.

We leave breadcrumbs of information everywhere for others to track us and predict where we are going, whether we want them to or not. This is a byproduct of the remarkable digital age among us. ‘We are not alone’ is less about extra-terrestrials and more about big brands following your every move and in zombie like fashion and in their own way, EAT YOUR BRAIN!!!  Ok, Ok exaggeration, but don’t become a passive zombie yourself, be aware, educate yourself and learn how you can take more control of what you put out there.

This article has referenced and extremely good article published in Forbes Magazine and written by Charles Duhigg.  I urge you to read this if you want to learn more