User Data: A New Commodity for an Interconnected Age

Earlier this year in a bankruptcy deal, Radioshack sold its assets for $26.2 million dollars.[1] Some of this was for the user data of 67 million of its customers. Initially, this included credit-card data, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and phone numbers for 117 million people, but various courts reduced access to only seven of 170 fields of data.[2] Among these reduced fields are names, addresses, purchasing history, and email addresses.

In today’s world, such user data is well sought after by companies, and for good reason analysis of customer behavior can allow for more affective advertising, the creation of more successful product lines, a greater understanding of customer satisfaction, and much more. As a result, the purchase and sale of such data is more commonplace than ever before, especially on the internet. This has only been spurred on by the abundance of free entertainment available on the web – websites that provide content for free must make a profit somehow and it turns out that the cliché “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product” is a reality all across the web.

Lightbeam for Firefox

A screenshot of Lightbeam, an addon for Firefox that lets you see what third party sites you’ve connected to during your web browsing. After opening the frontpages of Fox News, Buzzfeed, CNN, and The Washington Post, we’ve been connected to 206 third party sites. White lines indicate new connections and purple lines indicate new browsing cookies. Click to enlarge.

For example, merely by accessing the frontpage of Buzzfeed, a user is connected to about 30 third party websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Adobe, and over a dozen sites devoted to gathering user information for advertising purposes. Ten of these websites add cookies that continue to track a user’s web browsing habits long after they navigate away from the page (and many never bother to remove them). One of these sites belongs to Lotame, a company that allows anyone to sell user data and pay for “instant access to a pool of more than three billion cookies and a billion mobile device IDs.”[3]

This data may not contain personally identifying information, but it can certainly be traced back to a specific, anonymous user. Even without the use of cookies, nearly everyone has a fairly unique “fingerprint” through their web browser. Click here for a demo of this from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Beyond this “passive” tracking of users, a huge amount of information is available through social media. On Twitter alone, it’s estimated that about 500 million tweets are sent per day[4] (that’s 6000 every second!) and as such, the vast majority of them are never seen by anyone.[5] With access to the “Twitter Firehose,” an expensive developer tool, you gain access to the data on every single tweet. This allows a company to scrape the internet, searching for positive or negative reactions to certain products or a recent announcement. It also lets them preempt any possible PR disasters by starting damage control early.

Montly Active Users -- Facebook

Facebook is home to more than 1.5 billion active monthly users and has become a prime target for advertisers.

Monthly Active Users -- Twitter

Twitter’s now boasts over 300 million active users, all posting data that could be potentially valuable for companies.

Realistically, smaller companies don’t need to pay for the “Twitter Firehose.” Even though Twitter’s site only gives access to as little as 1% of tweets in realtime, scraping Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and other social media sites can provide all the consumer opinions a company could ever wish for. After all, if billions of users are willingly putting their valuable data out in the open, why not capitalize on it?

1. McCarty, Dawn. “RadioShack Sells Customer Data After Settling With States.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 20 May 2015. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-20/radioshack-receives-approval-to-sell-name-to-standard-general;
2. “Bankruptcy Judge Approves Sale of RadioShack Name and Data.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 May 2015. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/business/bankruptcy-judge-approves-sale-of-radioshack-name-and-data.html
3. “Global Third-Party Data Exchange | Lotame.” Lotame. Lotame, n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. http://www.lotame.com/data-exchange/
4. “Twitter Usage Statistics.” – Internet Live Stats. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. http://www.internetlivestats.com/twitter-statistics/
5. Geere, Duncan. “It’s Not Just You: 71 Percent of Tweets Are Ignored.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 04 Nov. 2015. http://www.wired.com/2010/10/its-not-just-you-71-percent-of-tweets-are-ignored/

3 thoughts on “User Data: A New Commodity for an Interconnected Age

  1. Shit dude, this is awesome. Everyone should read this. Seriously, I may assign it. Really well done article, just scratching the surface of the tracking and processing going on.

  2. As Eric said, really well done. You provide a concise and understandable summary of the big data market and you really opened my eyes to the extent that the habits of internet users are tracked. One thing I would be interested to know more about is how an individual’s privacy rights fit into this conversation. It would also be very fascinating to see the types of products that have emerged as a result of data acquired from social media platforms and other sources of consumer behavior.

    • I know there have been legal battles pertaining to how much data a company is allowed to share with other companies (or publicly, for that matter), but for the most part, they’re allowed to collect as much information as a user is willing to provide. All those pop ups that say something like “we use cookies to enhance our users’ experience and by continuing to use the site, you agree to our terms and conditions” serve as a way to get users to agree to give up information. Some sites may assume that use of the site signifies a tacit agreement to such information collection. Furthermore, sites like Facebook and Twitter might have similar clauses in their endless, legalese-heavy EULAS or Terms and Conditions.

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