Consumers willingly trade their personal data for personalized interactions with retailers.

Each time technology companies go lower into the brainstem, it takes a little more control of society. It starts small. First to get your attention, I add slot machine “pull to refresh” rewards which create little addictions. I remove stopping cues for “infinite scroll” so your mind forgets when to do something else. But then that’s not enough. As attention gets more competitive, we have to crawl deeper down the brainstem to your identity and get you addicted to getting attention from other people. By adding the number of followers and likes, technology hacks our social validation and now people are obsessed with the constant feedback they get from others. This helped fuel a mental health crisis for teenagers. And the next step of the attention economy is to compete on algorithms. Instead of splitting the atom, it splits our nervous system by calculating the perfect thing that will keep us there longer—the perfect YouTube video to autoplay or news feed post to show next. Now technology analyzes everything we’ve done to create an avatar—voodoo doll simulations of us. With more than a billion hours watched daily, it takes control of what we believe, while discriminating against our civility, our shared truth and our calm…[representing] a growing asymmetry between the power of technology and human weaknesses, that’s taking control of more and more of society.
—Senate testimony of Tristan Harris, cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology and a former Google design ethicist

The Hard Truth: People are the Product

Consumers willingly trade their personal data for personalized interactions with retailers.

Using the visual arts and provocative prose to influence human behavior is a long-established technique in business marketing. In an early example of psychological profiling, Madison Avenue ad agencies used alluring imagery and words that inspired feelings of elegance, daintiness and liberation to encourage women to smoke cigarettes.

But it didn’t begin there. The Big Five personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism—date back to research from the days of Hippocrates, who died in about 370 A.D. And it has continued. Substantial research in the 1880s by Sir Francis Galton contributed to an understanding of how humans make decisions.

Fairly recently, the arrival of social media, Big Data and artificial intelligence has enabled companies to leverage user-submitted data and AI-integrated analysis to hyper-personalize services for customers. Today’s consumers expect complete personalization, bespoke content and tailor-made suggestions.

But those services don’t come without a cost. By now, nearly everyone has seen an accurately targeted ad pop onto a computer screen and wondered if a smartphone is listening to supposedly private conversations. It’s all a part of analyzing consumers to predict their behavior with impressive accuracy and then modify that behavior by presenting the right messages. 

That movement has made data the most valuable resource on the planet. The collection and complex analysis of data is fueling a multi-billion dollar industry. Profits consistently grow for data titans like Google, Amazon and Facebook because they collect, buy and sell personal information. That includes phone numbers, email addresses, Social Security numbers and intelligence on spending habits, social relationships, personal preferences, browsing and search history, financial history, biometric data, call records, and much more.

How do they have access to that data? Throughout the course of everyday life, devices, service providers, and retailers are tracking consumers’ every move. The truth is becoming undeniable: People are the product, the commodity.

The personalization trap

Who’s capturing your likeness? Spectacles smartglasses can record video and upload it to Snapchat.

The success of any business hinges on the ability to create an emotional effect. Businesses set traps to catch the consumer’s attention, much the way talented painters, poets and musicians set traps to gain the public’s attention.

For a long time, companies have paid ad agencies to come up with catchy slogans that can aid in the quest for attention. But today’s consumers expect personalization, and creating that impression has become a priority for nearly all businesses. Some 91% of consumers are more likely to buy products from brands that recognize them, remember their preferences and provide accurate recommendations. Personalization has taken on such importance that consumers are willing to share their personal data in exchange for it, recent studies indicate.

Every tech CEO from Jeff Bezos to Mark Zuckerberg has embraced the idea of making the world more open and connected. In pursuit of that goal, their companies have made billions of dollars by exploiting private data.

In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg declared a new mission, stating that he wanted to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. That represented a slight shift from the old mission of providing people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

Both versions of the goal indicate that sharing personal data makes people more open and connected. That principle has made Facebook one of the world’s largest treasure troves of personal data and one of the most valuable companies that’s ever existed.

It’s also the reason for massive data breaches and a manipulated presidential election in 2016. Access to Facebook data enabled Cambridge Analytica to obtain 5,000 data points on every American voter. Using Big Data analytics, psychological analysis and targeted ad technology it accurately predicted voter behavior. As described by Christopher Wylie, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, personality drives behavior, and behavior influences how one votes.

So personalization has arrived with the unimaginably high price of threatening the very existence of democracy. Is it worth it? 

Personalization turns creepy

Every minute, Snapchat users share 527,760 photos, Twitter users send 456,000 tweets and Instagram users post 46,740 photos. That data doesn’t just evaporate. Every digital interaction, credit card purchase, web search, private gift for a spouse—virtually everything that happens online—is captured to construct a steady stream of curated content for every user. Companies are psychologically profiling every single thing about everyone online. Everyone leaves behind digital traces all over the internet. In The Matrix, machines exploited humans as a power source. In reality, humanity has become a data source for the tech monoliths.

Yet consumers still prefer personalized experiences. Lack of brand personalization costs businesses $756 billion annually, according to a study by Accenture. Still, 75% of consumers find personalization a bit creepy, another study indicates. Nearly half of the consumers in the latter survey said they wouldn’t do anything about the creepiness and will continue to shop. People have become their own worst enemies.

Nearly half of consumers, 49% to be exact, admitted they were creeped out when online ads used details related to something they have done, according to a CEB study. That suggests that many consumers were unaware that marketers had access to their personal data. They still think their passports, banking information and past addresses are somehow protected. But an abundance of research demonstrates how online activities can be manipulated to reveal sensitive, private information once thought secure.

Privacy-personalization paradox

Researchers have found that a consumer’s perception of the value of a service depends partly upon perceived risk. For example, personalized services and advertising motivate consumers to engage in online profiling despite potential privacy concerns. As a result, privacy has become an issue of strategic importance for companies operating in a networked world.

No one wants to admit to wanting to be sold. Such an admission would require confronting personal shortcomings, admitting to a lack of privacy and submitting to hopeless dependency on technology. Instead, consumers should recognize that they own their data. It’s an asset, like property.

If a company wants to use one’s data, it should request informed consent and provide all of the details on how it will use the data. It’s time for companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon to recognize their responsibility to protect humanity’s data and live up to that responsibility. 

Timothy Summers, Ph.D., is CEO of Summers & Co., a global strategic advisory firm that provides advice on emerging technology. He’s also executive director of Cloud and Advanced Network Engineering Services for Arizona State University.