17 Nov 2015

When does Big Data become creepy?

After two years of caution, the boundaries are being tested.

Two years ago, Telstra told Australia’s annual CeBIT conference that “the privacy conversation almost dominates the big data conversation” internally.

“There’s a lot of use cases you could dream up that we just won’t go near, won’t touch,” chief architect of information and corporate systems Mark Kortink told the conference.

“There have been quite a lot of scenarios where a use case has been looked at and then rejected purely on the basis that it’s just too ‘creepy’.”

Almost two years to the day, the carrier appears ready to retest some of those boundaries.

It is trialling a tool by US firm Lithium that aggregates what people say online to “create a hyper-detailed portrait of every single person who opts-in.”

Telstra noted the trials could bring it closer to “the ‘freak line’, which is how much you use the data that’s available to you within the confines of the comfort of the customer.”

“Our job is to make sure that we’re testing the boundaries of that but not exceeding it,” digital operations director Monty Hamilton told Fairfax.

Others including ANZ Bank are also willing to test that line. The Bank is using technology to identify what customers spend their money on – holidays, for example – and is using that intelligence to start better “conversations” with them.

The project was characterised as “investing in people, data, analytics and technology so that we can listen and act on key moments in our customers’ lives”.

After several years debating the ambiguities of what might and might not constitute a crossing of this “freak line”, it seems that a lack of transparency and choice for those whose data is being collected and analysed is really the breaking point for any big data project.

Telstra’s use of Lithium, for example, will only allow it to view intelligence for customers that physically opt-in to use the service.

That kind of opt-in will be important for all potentially-invasive uses of data – including, for example, the growing use of beacons in retail stores.

“You’ve got to let them opt out – not just offer once then wriggle-out-if-you-can,” Telstra retail industry executive Gareth Jude said recently.

“It’s continued options to opt out, otherwise you’ll lose the brand connection.”

Where transparency is obscured, some customers become wary at even engaging with the brand.

“I recently upgraded my mobile phone and have been barraged with set-up questions about allowing the apps to see where I am and what I’m doing,” Howard Baldwin opined in Forbes.

“I know that I would derive some value from revealing that information, but I’m leery of doing so because I don’t know what other advertising or other alerts I’m going to be subjected to. Nor does it help that I keep getting reminders to set my location that give me two options: “Set my location” and “Remind me later.” None for “Do not set my location.”

“If you’re not going to give me choice, I’m not going to give you information. So the creepiness continues and we both lose out.”