Big brother is watching you

Big data is a hot topic at the moment, but what is ‘big data’ exactly? According to Lewis and Westlund, big data refers to data sets that are too large for standard computer memory and software to process. By analyzing big data you can reveal patterns, trends, and associations. Big data gives us the opportunity to integrate information from different sources and recognize/predict various patterns. These patterns are usually related to human interactions and behavior. With this, big data could be very important for the implementation of marketing activities.


For instance, when you are the marketing manager of the Dutch supermarket cooperation Albert Heijn. Albert Heijn makes use of the “Bonus-card”, a card with which you retrieve discounts on products who are in the “Bonus”. Every time your card gets scanned, Albert Heijn receives information about your consumer behavior and interactions (e.g. you come every day to buy at least one Tony’s chocolate bar). So Albert Heijn knows what you are going to eat this day or week. By means of the Bonus-card they can effectively design marketing campaigns (e.g. hamster weken) because they have insight in you as customer. Almost all regular customers of Albert Heijn have a Bonus-card so it is a smart way to gather data and, subsequently, predict purchase behavior.

In the example above I wrote about data collection in a physical environment, but the same (and probably more easy and often) happens in the non-physical environment, such as the Internet. The Internet has numerous ways to retrieve data (cookies, Google, YouTube, social media interactions, location-based services etc.). Some ballpark figures of real-time data online (20/11/2015 15.00):

  • Videos viewed today on YouTube: 6,027,000,000
  • Photos uploaded on Instagram: 162,630,000
  • Google searches today: 2,787,425,000
  • Facebook active users: 1,499,923,000
  • Blog posts written today:2,577,000
  • Tweets send today: 571,955,000

Data can be implemented for commercial purposes. For instance, when Google knows that you love Tony’s chocolate and you repeatedly purchased it online at, you might receive banners or advertisement of both Albert Heijn and Tony’s chocolate when surfing online. In some respects, both in the offline environment (i.e., Bonus-card) as the online environment (i.e., we are being followed, or some would say stalked. A logical follow-up question would be: Is this ethical?

To answer these questions, I would like to give special attention to social medium Facebook as it is very popular and it is a medium that retrieves lots of data. Facebook collects data on the basis of your own activities on Facebook (e.g. posting a picture of you and Tony), but also when other networks or people deliver information about you. Hence, privacy depends on your friends on Facebook. In addition, Facebook assembles data concerning payments, device usage and data from websites that collaborate with Facebook, such as advertisers. This is what they say on their ‘privacy page’. But, what is the deal with image recognition and extracti222ng data from that. Eric Postma mentioned that faces, emotions and objects can be recognized in images. If Facebook starts using this technique, more questions could be raised with regards to privacy and ethics.

But, that is not the only thing that they do; Facebook carries out research with Facebook-users as (unknown) participants. Kramer, Guillory and Hancock did a research about emotion contagion through Facebook. In their study they showed that when more positive posts were suppressed in people’s news feed, less positive expressions were posted. When negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. An interesting study, but (again) questions arise about ethics as participants were not aware of their participation.

In all, lots of data is assembled though Facebook, but are Facebook-users aware of this? In my opinion, people should be made aware of the activities of Facebook; the image processing, their research studies, and all other data gathering activities. Smith, Szongott, Henne and von Voigt also seem to agree with this. By creating awareness, people get a real choice to unsubscribe if they feel their privacy is invaded. Although I think that most people are aware of the fact that posting information online can be traced back to you, some people are not aware of this (e.g. children). Also, as I mentioned earlier, your privacy is depended on your friend.

To conclude, big data creates opportunities for marketers but it also raises questions about privacy and ethical dilemmas. Both Albert Heijn and Facebook retrieve data and use it for their own commercial purposes, but they do it differently. Now my question to you is Would you be more comfortable with the Albert Heijn approach or with the Facebook approach?



5 gedachtes over “Big brother is watching you

  1. I agree on that people should be more aware of what will happen with their privacy when they are example on Facebook, but all the things Facebook does are in their privacy settings, so if people want to know more, they should just read the privacy settings better.
    On the other hand I am feeling more comfortable with the Alber Heijn apporach, beacause they use just the data of your bonus card and this is a card you only use for the store where it’s about.So Albert Heijn does not make use of other privacy concerns like your pictures, things you write etc. just what you bought in the store and they only use it to give you better offers.


  2. Hello Genya! I enjoyed your blogpost and I was really impressed by the link you provided which monitors the online daily activity! To answer your question, well I think I’m closer to the AH approach,too… At least you cannot use the card, if you don’t want them to invade in your privacy. You can do the same with Facebook just not approving its’ terms, if you don’t consider them ethical. But, to return in reality(because not too many people do so), I’m truly preoccupied about this issue… To be honest, I think that in the online realm ethics are not taken too much into consideration. And I’m afraid it will be really diffult to change this situation… Keep writing! 🙂


  3. Hey Genya, nice post you wrote there. To answer your question, I would go with the Albert Heijn approach. AH invades your privacy way less. They only know about the products you buy and you allow them to have this information by using your bonuscard. Facebook however, gathers way more private and personal data. I think Facebook knows you better than you know yourself.
    People rely heavily on FB these days so they really ‘need’ to use it. If you want facebook not to learn from you, you can never open FB again.


  4. Thank you for the nice blog. I full agree with you on this part of your blog: “In all, lots of data is assembled though Facebook, but are Facebook-users aware of this? In my opinion, people should be made aware of the activities of Facebook; the image processing, their research studies, and all other data gathering activities. Smith, Szongott, Henne and von Voigt also seem to agree with this. By creating awareness, people get a real choice to unsubscribe if they feel their privacy is invaded.”

    As I reacted on another blog, I also think that the solution lies in creating the awareness, instead of fighting the rapid developments in big data or what social media platforms like Facebook are doing with it. For young and old, we need to train people for the future to make possible consequences more clear. People seem to be caught by surprise when an old social media post is brought up again and we need to invest in the awareness of this. I believe that the responsibility always starts with yourself, being cautious with what to post and not. Always blaming Social media platforms is not the solution. Ten years ago, we didn’t have naked pictures of us laying around did we? So why would you on the internet?


  5. This is a nice blog, and I liked the example of the Bonuskaart, which is indeed recognizable. In addition, a few years ago the Bonus kaart was just for the discount on products, while today you can connect it to your personal information to receive ‘personalized offers’. This shows that this approach is also developing to get to know more about the customer, because with connecting your name and other information to the card, it is probably quite easy to connect the products you buy to the person you are. But it is your own choice to connect your card or just keep it ‘anonymous’. Therefore, personally I also prefer this approach to Facebook’s approach. For example, on Facebook you can’t choose if you want a personalized news feed or not – you get it anyways. But basically, you (could) know that this is the case, therefore it is increasingly important that you are aware of the fact that a platform like Facebook is infinite, even things I have posted when I was 13 years old are traceable. That is also what I think is most problematic. Today, I am aware that I should not post something that I don’t want everyone to know, but for 13 year olds, this is a different story.
    I think that it is even important to be aware of the fact that even the way the Albert Heijn distracts information about you, could possibly be less innocent. What if the information is not that secret one way or another – and you drink 3 bottles of wine a day? That is probably not the information you want to be available about yourself.


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