Two Austrian privacy researchers, Wolfie Christl and Sarah Spiekermann, have conducted a comprehensive study about corporate surveillance, digital tracking, big data and privacy. Their detailed report shows, how networks of companies are collecting, analyzing, sharing and making use of vast amounts of personal information about billions of people. The report was originally published at Cracked Labs.

From the Introduction

“The objective of this report is to give a comprehensive overview of the practices in today’s personal data ecosystems and their implications for individuals and society. The report addresses the following questions:

  • Data networks: Who are the players in today’s networks of digital tracking and personal data business? How do tech companies, data brokers, online data management platforms and many other businesses actually collect, collate, share and make use of personal information? How is information recorded by smartphones and other devices linked with customer records in companies?
  • Data network’s sources: Which kinds of information are recorded and shared by smartphones, fitness trackers, e-readers, smart TVs, connected thermostats and cars, and many other devices and platforms? Will the Internet of Things lead to ubiquitous surveillance of everyday life?
  • The scope of data networks: Where is information being used in other contexts or for other purposes than it was initially collected for? To what extent is today’s marketing data ecosystem merging with applications of risk management such as fraud prevention, identity verification, credit scoring, insurance analytics, background checks for employers and landlords, or even law enforcement?
  • How data networks observe the population: How is personal data analyzed in times of Big Data? What is inferred from purchases, calls, messages, website visits, app usage, web searches and likes? How can analytics be used to predict sensitive personal attributes and to judge personality? Where are methods of data mining and Big Data analytics used today in fields such as marketing, retail, insurance, banking, healthcare and work? To what extent are consumers profiled, categorized, rated and ranked by businesses?
  • How data networks exercise control: Do the fundamental principles of advertising that have been in effect for decades still hold? Or did advertising perhaps turn to something different through real-time targeting and personalization? How are people nudged and influenced using personalized content, rewards and other incentives based on digital tracking?

These questions are addressed in four main chapters that focus on: the analysis of personal data (chapter 2), the use of analytics by businesses (chapter 3), devices and platforms (chapter 3) and the business of personal data (chapter 4). This structure was chosen as a reasonable functional differentiation, but it is still a compromise. In practice these fields are highly interconnected. Subsequently – based on the findings – the implications of corporate surveillance on individuals and society are summarized and discussed (chapter 6). This includes issues such as how automated decisions based on digital profiling may affect the lives of consumers and how this may this lead to unfair discrimination, social exclusion and other harms. After an ethical reflection on personal data markets by Sarah Spiekermann (chapter 7) an overview about recommended action is provided (chapter 8).”

Find the full report here.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

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