Big Data: The octopus that engulfs us all
5 March 2012

by tmartin on March 5, 2012

I DID SOMETHING LAST WEEK  that I haven’t done in years: I changed my browser home page.

The last time I made the switch, it was from Alta Vista to Google. Anyone remember Alta Vista? It had the cleanest, most simple, and speediest search interface. Then, pressured by a need to generate revenue, it morphed into a ponderous portal.

Google then took the #1 place in my heart for clean, simple, and fast. But last week, Google started giving me the creepies. Last week, Google’s new privacy policy went into effect, driven by the company’s need to monetize my online activity even more than it already has.

Now, on one hand, I can certainly understand why a company would want to consolidate 60 or 70 policies into one single policy – just for operational sanity, if nothing else.

But, on the other hand, the consolidation brings into focus the integration of data across Google’s applications and by extension, the way that data records, reflects, and repackages for sale one’s life.

With its new policy, Google makes no bones about using your data, my data, and our data to sell, sell, and sell. If you don’t like it, says Google, then leave. Don’t use our products.

And so, I’m not.

Or at least I’m trying not to. Turns out it’s pretty hard to go cold turkey from Google simply because Google shows up, well, everywhere.

Honestly, I don’t think for a second that Google cares about me, personally. It doesn’t want to sell what I, Teresa Martin, see or do. But, it does care about me as a set of eyeballs in its collection and it wants to be sure I’m packaged with the just the right mark up for its advertiser customers.

With the new policy, what I type in my Gmail account, what I do in Google docs, what I post in Google +, what I watch on YouTube, and what I add to Google Maps — not to mention what I search for in the Google search engine — combine to create a target profile sellable to the highest bidder.

Google, of course, tells me that it merely does this so that the advertising I receive will be more valuable to me. It’s really just another service it, the benevolent gorilla, offers.

If you’re signed into Google, we can do things like suggest search queries – or tailor your search results – based on the interests you’ve expressed in Google+, Gmail, and YouTube,” it writes on its privacy page.

To me, that’s not a benefit. That’s an unwanted filtering, unasked for editing, and unneeded intrusion.

But let’s be honest. Our information hasn’t been private for years. The direct marketing industry, for example, has long known how to pinpoint target based on buying and giving histories. It developed sophisticated data triangulation to ID very specific matches with very specific offers, and purchased information about people from all kinds of sources, including magazines, catalogs, and registries of motor vehicles.

Google gives me another whole layer of the creepies not because it wants to deliver ads based on my search terms. That’s a given. No, it goes a rung up the creepies ladder because it combines data from multiple ongoing interactions and because those interactions pervade and integrate so tightly into so many people’s daily lives – both personal and professional.

This extensive mining of data from a myriad of sources, including social media, has become what one might call a trending topic, under the moniker Big Data. Capital B. Capital D.

A few weeks back, The New York Times Magazine used Target as an exemplar of the power of Big Data. In the magazine article (, the writer revealed that the store’s data gurus had developed buying pattern analyses that could accurately predict not only that a customer was expecting a bundle of baby joy, but also that bundle’s due date. Target used the data to send product-specific coupons to the customer’s home along a specific pregnancy cycle buying pattern.

Big Data workshops abound, too. For example, earlier this month, MIT’s Sloan School announced a two-day series in March which promptly sold out. (

What would make a company shell out $2900 for two days of insight? MIT’s Prof. Sandy Pentland put it pretty bluntly in the press release:

“Many managers undervalue the worth of data, but really it is like money in your bank account and you should be getting a return on it. This program will show managers how to capture the benefits of data such as creating better customer analytics or capturing real-time consumer preferences.”

In other words, my data and your data belong to someone else’s bank account.

I don’t know if shifting my search allegiance makes any different, really.  I went with Microsoft’s Bing because it feels fast, it seems to yield good results, and I kinda’ like the daily photo with its trivia tidbits.

I’m using a not-Chrome browser – switching around between Mozilla and Safari. My mobile apps travel in the iPhone world, not the Google/Android galaxy.

My email is open source client-based. My domains live in yet another location from another provider. My driving directions come from AOL’s MapQuest. Facebook gets only the occasional promotional post.

I don’t want to leave the 21st century. I like having my digital tools. I just don’t like being for sale all the time.

So my strategy for combating We-are-the-Google ( assimilation comes down to a strategy of having lots of baskets and lots of eggs and hoping they don’t all buy/sell/trade with each other.

In the age of Big Data, that may be a lost cause, but I like to think that I’m maybe, just maybe, I’m making the data octopus twist a few tentacles to find me and making it just a teeny bit harder to put me and my habits into the market basket.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: