Thinkin' about the code

A panel discussion for the Festival of Ideas examines whether social media giants are profiting from our willingness to share the most intimate details of our lives online, and whether we should be worried by this compromise to our privacy.

Never before have we had access to such comprehensive behavioural data about consumers.

Michal Kosinski

One in every nine people on Earth is on Facebook and the average Briton devotes an entire day to the site each month. Personal information, much of it volunteered, has become so prevalent and readily available that for many it constitutes the most powerful marketing tool in human history. The question is, how is this information being used, and by whom? And, should we be worried?

Listen to the debate here:

From 3:30pm on Saturday afternoon (27 October) at the Faculty of Law, a panel of experts will explore the questions that surround the dream of global connectivity, and the nightmare of human commodity, as part of this year’s Festival of Ideas.

From social interactions, entertainment, shopping, and gathering information, almost any human activity you can think of is now mediated digitally. As such, these behaviours can easily be recorded and analysed, fuelling the emergence of personalised search engines, recommender systems, and targeted online marketing.

This raises highly sensitive questions about privacy and data ownership. Who should have access to such an extraordinarily powerful reservoir of information, and where it should be stored?

“The widespread availability of extensive records of individual behaviour, and the desire to learn more about customers and citizens presents serious challenges to future society, particularly in relation to trust,” says Michal Kosinski, Director of Operations for the University’s Psychometrics Centre and Leader of the e-Psychometrics Unit.

“Trust between consumers and corporations, governments and their citizens, families even can be seriously harmed once people realize how exposed they are in the digital environment. It can all still seem quite innocent, with Facebook ‘likes’ and photos of friends, but new research is starting to show that this seemingly harmless information can be used to make very accurate inferences of highly sensitive traits.”

Kosinski, one of the panellists, spends much of his time cultivating and analysing the increasingly immense tracts of data in order to show the precision with which estimations can be made about personality traits, such as openness, extroversion and stability.

“Never before have we had access to such comprehensive behavioural data about consumers,” says Kosinski. “A marketing revolution is upon us, a completely new dimension is added through the combination of scientifically robust personality tests and other demographic information.”

The other panellists are William Dutton, Professor of Internet Studies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, Nick Pickles, Director of the civil liberties and privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, and Mariam Cook, Senior Digital Consultant at PR firm Porter Novelli.

“The web connects us more closely than ever before, giving organisations and brands the capability to understand us, target us, and to fulfil our needs and desires in increasingly sophisticated ways,” says Cook. “This presents many fantastic opportunities for marketers, and potential delights for those formerly known as the audience, but it also means great responsibility lies on our shoulders.”

“This presents a challenge - how to balance the apparently conflicting ideals of privacy and openness in all of our data dealings.”

But for Nick Pickles, the increasingly heard motto ‘if we're not paying to use a service, then we're the product’ is at the very core of this issue: “Our personal data is the oil of the internet age and yet we have grown oblivious to how our every movement is being monitored and analysed for commercial gain.”

“As an entire generation outsources it's privacy to social media companies, I believe strengthening individual privacy will soon become a social necessity and a commercial imperative.”

Panel discussion ‘Are we being sold online?’ starts at 3.30pm on Saturday 27 October at the Faculty of Law. With Michal Kosinski, Cambridge's Psychometrics Centre; Professor William Dutton, Oxford Internet Institute; Nick Pickles, Big Brother Watch; Mariam Cook, Porter Novelli and the Chair, Spencer Kelly, Click presenter.

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