As we live life, our actions are recorded across countless channels, e.g., text messaging threads versus ATM transactions and so on. Channel separation is why your bank doesn’t know where you were physically located yesterday and your doctor doesn’t know the contents of your work emails. While we take channel separation as a given, channel consolidation is the trend and our society is heading in this direction at warp speed.
Channel consolidation is an essential ingredient to improving accuracy in prediction (e.g., your on-line retailer wisely inferring your interests). For the most part, consumers love this as it makes life more efficient. Businesses equally like this as better prediction means more efficient operations. And for all these same reasons the public sector (intelligence and law enforcement to social services) are just as keen to enjoy improvements in prediction as well.
Facebook makes for a great example of channel consolidation. All your emails, instant messages, status updates, past/present/and future travel, annotated photos, your social circle, memberships, self–expressed interests, and more … all bundled together in one nice little package, under your user account. Traditionally such life details are expressed on diverse channels – unobservable to any single entity. No more. Facebook, with this panoramic view of its users, now likely has a substantially more complete picture of a person than almost any other single entity.
How powerful is this? Here is one example: if you are a Facebook user maybe you have noticed the increasingly (spooky smart) relevant ads. I get ads that read “Are you 44, a triathlete, and want abs like this?” Or a well-timed ad over the summer when I was in Southern California that read: “Are you looking for a triathlete coach in the Orange County area?” It is so relevant I find it very hard not to click on the ad! (Be assured I do resist.)
The more sense Facebook makes of users, the better the service, the more folks will find Facebook irreplaceable, the more users will flock to the platform, and last but not least, the more advertisers are willing to pay. Everyone seems the winner.
Hence, channel consolidation is inevitable primarily because it is irresistible. [More here]
Consumers actually demand this. For instance, you expect that your healthcare provider will channel consolidate your data (lab work, prescription history, etc.) to properly care for you – or you may sue them for negligence!
Nonetheless, it takes no leap to realize this very big and very important question: ‘who consolidates which channels and for what purpose?’
Law and policy will inevitably determine which entities can access and commingle which data (channel consolidation) and under what condition. At the same time, I worry that the technical means to enhance privacy (e.g., Immutable Audit Logs that facilitate accountability and oversight) are not being adopted at an appropriate pace to keep up.
One more interesting tidbit: People often use and then abandon email accounts. And I bet most of these folks consider all those communications (e.g., associated blog comments) effectively clipped off – like a tail – and no longer of record. However, if the data lives on, and if there are features in that data that enable channel consolidation (e.g., your name and one or more additional distinguishing features) … then it is quite possible that these bodies could be raised from the dead. Hummm…
How to prevent channel consolidation and the resurrection of your clipped tails makes for interesting conversation – but that will have to wait.
And on the lighter side: Facebook, by the way, makes use of a fraction of what they know and uses basic algorithms at best. I realized this when not long ago I commented to my girlfriend about how damn useful the Facebook ads are getting and she pointed out that one of her recent ads stated “Is your boyfriend gay?” What the hell! And then a few weeks later I get an ad that says: “Is your girlfriend cheating on you in Vegas?”
The less likely alternative is that Facebook is using most of the data and very smart algorithms … so smart in fact that they have an advertiser intentionally making us suspicious of each other with the intent of soon dishing up a new ad that says something like “Need a private investigator to watch your girlfriend?”