Less is better: guarding your privacy in a world of micro-targeting

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By Dr Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Reader in Economics
Department of Economics, University of Birmingham

Given the potential to legally harvest data to use for micro-targeting, as consumers we need to understand how we are vulnerable to being manipulated.

The controversy over the way Cambridge Analytica has used data harvested from Facebook has raised concerns around data security. The case involves a number of distinct issues, including whether the harvesting of information was illegal, whether it received money in violation of campaign laws, and whether the micro-targeting was successful in influencing electoral outcomes.

It also highlights the way that sophisticated algorithms can be used to micro-target i.e. use consumer data and demographic information to identify the specific interests of individuals – or small groups of like-minded individuals – with a view to influencing their decisions. Micro-targeting has been successfully used by political parties to divide the public into very small groups and target them with messages that are tailored to their specific interests.

At face value, evidence seems to show that Cambridge Analytica used data illegally and did not stop when asked to by Facebook, which in turn took Cambridge Analytical at its word and was slow to react to the breach. Perhaps more worrying is how this data was created by Facebook and the way that micro-targeting has become the norm. Regardless of the fact that Facebook may not have sanctioned this particular use, there is little doubt that this data was created to be used for micro-targeting in some form or another.

This opens up the question: can micro-targeting be beneficial for consumers? Surely we would rather receive advertisements based on our interests than be inundated with things that don’t matter to us? While micro-targeting can potentially benefit consumers, it increases the scope for being manipulated. In a political context, recent research shows that micro-targeting can increase political polarisation.

Paradoxically, successful micro-targeting globally can produce various forms of the same information, which may perpetuate false beliefs and heighten our bias. With the possibility of false information spreading, micro-targeting may also lead to fake news based on what different groups are likely to believe. This can reinforce our confirmation bias.

Taking into account the possible insidious effects of micro-targeting, rational consumers may wish to limit what they share online. An added benefit of sharing less information online is that it will allow for individuals to be safeguarded from other types of data breaches that can have harmful effects.

It is important to investigate Cambridge Analytica as well as Facebook to see if they acted illegally or irresponsibly. Given the potential to legally harvest data to use for micro-targeting, as consumers we need to understand how we are vulnerable to being manipulated. The more we share, the easier it is for us to be targeted. Leaving less of our personal footprints online would reduce the potential of being manipulated by algorithms that are getting smarter at micro-targeting.

1 thought on “Less is better: guarding your privacy in a world of micro-targeting”

  1. Thank you for pointing out an interesting and important possibility. Yes. Micro-targeting will happen more as the days pass. What I am concerned about is that, there is no way out. Internet of things will make data security a nightmare for maintaining privacy. Identifying people solely on the basis of information they formally share will be too easy.

    In order to avoid micro-targeting via social media, we may have to return to social media with the same attitude that we assume when navigating in public space. Which means sharing information with unverified and unsecure sites gets added to the list of advices we have to offer to our next generation.

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