Les stats, C'est moi
A new way to think about data is needed
“Data”, runs a common refrain, “is the new oil.” Like the sticky black stuff that comes out of the ground, all those 1s and 0s are of little use until they are processed into something more valuable. That something is you.
Seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies by market capitalisation are technology firms. Excluding Apple, which makes money by selling pricey gadgets, and Microsoft, which charges businesses for its software and services, all are built on a foundation of tying data to human beings. Google and Facebook want to find out as much as it is possible to know about their users’ interests, activities, friends and family. Amazon has a detailed history of consumer behaviour. Tencent and Alibaba are the digital wallets for hundreds of millions of Chinese; both know enough about consumers to provide widely used credit scores.
Where tech companies have blazed a trail, others have followed. Consumer brands in every industry collect data on their customers to improve design and advertise products and services. Governments have looked at these firms and instituted their own systems to gather information on their citizens. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, cites Facebook as an inspiration. That is apparent in the ever-expanding reach of Aadhaar, an id system for India’s 1.3bn residents that is required for nearly every government service imaginable.
That data are valuable is increasingly well-understood by individuals, too, not least because personal information is so often hacked, leaked or stolen. India’s database has been shown to be vulnerable to scammers and state abuse. Facebook has spent most of 2018 dealing with the reputational damage of multiple breaches, most notably via Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm. The list of other companies that have suffered some sort of data breach in 2018 alone reads like a roll call of household names: Google, Marriott, Delta, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Best Buy, Sears, Saks 5th Avenue, even Panera Bread. Such events have caused a tectonic shift in the public understanding of data collection. People have started to take notice of all the data they are giving away.