The effect of online tracking largely results in a chilling effect on peoples behavior in social and political activities. A brief search of a persons Facebook can cause an obvious and marked change as to how that person is viewed as an employee. But so can signing up to, or visiting, a website. The New Zealand company Datazoo advertises,
Data Zoo can identify and report on what is happening at a residential address at any given point in time, for example, do they have fibre connected, a land line telephone, who lives at the house – is it a family, what age are the residents, are they planning to sell their house?
A greater level of profiling information is available through Data Zoo and can be tailored to any given campaign ensuring your target the right customers
In this case the data sources are revealed by Datazoo. Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to know what data is being held about an individual in most datasets without paying for it. Or even if it is accurate. Looking at email lists from Equifax reveals that datasets are being broken down to target sections of society including Seniors, Urban Survivors (the poor and disenfranchised), Kids on the Block (Families with children under 12) and Wine Drinkers. Whether these sections are accurate or not doesn’t matter when the person being assessed doesn’t know they are being assessed, by who or what the methods of assessment are. There are over 700,000 entries in these lists for New Zealanders.
To take the Urban Survivors category as an example. One of the selection criteria is “boating”. Does this mean if a person owns a boat they might be included or if they travel in one? Perhaps the criteria is a meta selection based in buying goods from fishing shops or near marinas but not having a boat? Even including the two other prominent selection criteria of horse racing and gambling why should these people have their opportunities altered by being included on a list they knew nothing about with no chance of explanation? Peoples social activities are being tracked and judgments made from that data that affect other parts of their lives.
Political activities are unsurprisingly also subject to profiling, both as a way to target voters and political activities. Recently the most high profile reports have involved Brexit and the Trump campaigns and their connections with Cambridge Analytica and possibly Palantir. There have been no reports of these services being used in New Zealand yet although since Palantir has an office in Wellington they are definitely including New Zealand datasets in their analysis.
Political parties in New Zealand are using internal and external databases to target audiences and this is expected to follow the same track as in other countries where advertisements are being aimed at small groups resultant from database analysis.
To show the ease of targeting specific groups, in an interview with the Otago Daily Times, an executive of Data Insight said,
For example, it is possible to target ”single female” data from Facebook, use readily available software to identify where those people are, and then launch an app titled ”Meet single blondes out tonight”.
This is a disturbing statement and to be clear she continued to say that although it would be legal it wouldn’t be ethical. Ethics does not go hand in hand with data analysis though. Increasingly, large companies are hiring Private Investigation firms to protect their interests. The most high profile of which has been Thompson and Clark who promote themselves as being a corporate intelligence and protection agency. According to news reports their investigations of political activist organisations have included,
- Save Happy Valley
- Wellington Animal Rights Network
- Peace Action Wellington
- Save Animals From Exploitation
The only reason these investigations have come to light is because of blunders made in the real world by Thompson and Clark. Online surveillance is almost impossible to detect and much harder to prove but creating a dataset of political supporters who are active would appear to be trivial. The only way to protect our political and social freedoms online is too use the appropriate tools, such as encryption, and change our habits (eg; leave Facebook). Otherwise we will be manipulated.