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Is data profiling wrong?

Louisa Osmond, Assistant Professor

Faculty Blog

The marketing community has been rocked by yet another scandal, this time concerning the ethics of data profiling and a consumer’s right to privacy.

Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based data company, mined the personal information of 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge while working on Trump’s presidential election campaign in order to create psychographic profiles of voters and enable more effective political targeting.

It did this by creating a Facebook quiz app. In total, 270,000 people downloaded the app, which granted Cambridge Analytica access to data about where they live, their friends lists and their likes. Because the quiz was launched in 2015 (before Facebook amended its privacy settings), the app could scrape the data of all of the friends of those who downloaded it, which accounts for the predicted 50 million affected Facebook users.

Today, if you give a third-party app access to your Facebook account, that app can see only a limited set of data that you choose to share with it.

The quiz data collected by Cambridge Analytica was then added to more data, including information from Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, consumer spending data, and demographics, etc., which enabled the company to create voter understanding to be sold commercially.

There has been a public outcry regarding this practice. However, is it justified? Isn’t it just a form of profiling that has long been employed by marketers? Charities, for instance, use donor data to create profiles of lookalikes so that they can identify people who are likely to support their cause. Restaurants use data to send what they hope are relevant offers to diners in a bid to entice them back.

Moreover, in 2000 the campaign team for George Bush identified that a large proportion of swing voters enjoyed hiking and advised him to be seen trail-walking as often as possible during his downtime. Is this any different from what Cambridge Analytica has done, albeit a more analogue version?

Marketing has long divided opinion regarding its ethics, and with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into force in less than 50 days transparency has soared up the marketing agenda. Whatever your beliefs about the ethics of profiling, what is clear is that marketers have got to become more explicit about how they collect data and what they use it for.