Recently, a group of my CapTech colleagues met to discuss "Privacy and Big Data" by Terence Craig and Mary E. Ludloff. A common theme throughout this discussion was the ethical use of personal data. We discussed a few examples where we thought the ethical line was crossed and freely provided personal data is used for unintended purposes. Our wide ranging and very lively discussion included the following: the responsibility companies have to protect their customer's privacy, apps that exploit our privacy, and the data marketplace behind sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Companies are constrained by government regulations (HIPPA, Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, etc.) or contractual obligations and monitor the use of their customer's personal data, but those constraints don't necessarily keep them on the right side of the ethical line. Companies must also define their own internal policies to manage public perception and protect their brand image. Target Corporation is a popular example of the need for this type of internal policy (see these Forbes & NY Times articles). Andrew Pole, the Target statistician that developed the fascinating pregnancy prediction model, summed it up nicely with the following quote, "But even if you're following the law, you can do things where people get queasy." Companies are constantly flirting with the ethical line to find ways to effectively market their products without creeping out their potential customers and damaging the public perception of their brand.
There are some companies that don't bother flirting with the ethical line and take creepy to a new level. The "Girls Around Me" app, developed by i-Free, is a popular example used to illustrate the things that can be done with the information many of us willingly provide. The app aggregated data from Foursquare and Facebook and made it possible to view the location, photo and other personal data of women located nearby. The data they presented was publicly available and provided voluntarily, but was aggregated and used for an unintended purpose. i-Free did nothing illegal and has publicly stated their app was misunderstood (see this Wall Street Journalarticle). It has become the center of many privacy debates and they ultimately pulled their app from the Apple App Store.
Most of us in the industry know that our data is being collected all the time and our data is the currency that pays for those "free" websites we visit and apps we download. However, I think the vast majority of the general public is unaware of the behind-the-scenes market for the data from these sites and apps. Ask your non-IT friends why Facebook paid $1 Billion for Instagram. My bet is most will have no idea why a "free" camera app is worth that much money.
As our society becomes more aware of the true cost of the "free" things we get on the Internet, we will have to come to grips with our expectation of privacy.