In the near future, big data developments will allow companies to observe people constantly.

Journalist, content writer and translator based in Berlin.

User studies are not novel, but the magnitude to which consumers are tested is new. This testing is about to grow exponentially with the Internet of Things connecting products other than smartphones and notebooks online. One question comes to mind, whether there will be a moment in the future when you are actually observed 24/7.

First of all, our online behaviour is subjected to near constant observation. Split testing of websites is widespread among companies. Bart Schutz, Chief Inspirational Officer at Online Dialogue, states in an episode of VPRO Tegenlicht: “The chance is huge that you are part of an experiment if you go online now. Banks, insurance companies, ecommerce stores; they are all testing’. We participate in many experiments, one after the other, which makes for experiments featuring ‘hundreds of billions of people’, according to Schutz.

Split testing allows marketers to bypass customer surveys, and directly observe purchasing habits. These results are more accurate than surveys where people might not be honest, or are unaware of their reasons for choosing a product over another similar item. Pepijn Rijvers, Chief Marketing Officer at Booking.com explained to VPRO Tegenlicht that all their website pages are constantly being tested. “Some changes are so small you wouldn’t even notice it, like a button with or without a white border.”

You are unable to decline data collection when you visit a website

Of course, there are very practical reasons for implementing data studies that benefit both companies and customers. Supply chains can be much more effective in getting the right amount of products to the store, for example. Perishable products like flowers used to be very tricky to deliver on time, but analysing data can tremendously cut down on the waste created by decaying roses and tulips.

The downside to online testing is the lack of actively gathering consent. In the days of telesales, you could decline a survey when the phone rang during dinner time. Nowadays, you have to locate the privacy statement on a website to find out if data is being collected at all. And even if you take the time to familiarize yourself with the privacy policies of every website you visit, often there is no alternative offered. Many services are only available online. Even banks, travel agencies and telecommunication providers predominantly have switched to online service delivery.

Additionally, you are unable to decline data collection when you visit a website. You are not asked if you mind being part of an experiment. The responsibility for getting consent used to lie with the data gathering companies. Now, however, the customer has to take additional steps in ensuring privacy. Some available tools are Tor Browser, ad blockers or browser extensions like Ghostery.

The amount of data collected online is already staggering, but this is about to be dwarfed by the upcoming data from smart products. As more and more products are able to go online, the Internet of Things (IoT) will offer insight on online and offline behaviour. Our toothbrushes, fitness trackers and thermostats measure what we do at home, at work and outside. Even our bodily functions like heart rate are about to be uploaded to the net. Benefits include giving people increased insight into their own behaviour. It will allow them to become fitter and decrease electricity consumption. But, all this data is not just visible to consumers; it is also shared with the producers of these products. This ‘smart mattress’ for example shares user data with the producer Eight via the app: ‘Eight may share or sell aggregated, de-identified data that does not identify you, with partners and the public in a variety of ways, such as by providing research or reports about health and sleep.’

Companies will transform from production companies to Big Data companies as their customer database becomes increasingly more valuable. As the revenue of analysing, using, and selling data increases, their business model will focus more on data. Big Data is the new gold, and many industries are trying to get a piece of the pie. All kinds of products are being equipped with sensors as we speak; espresso machines, doorbells, and even LEGO. A sensor can be added to almost anything, transforming simple utensils to data collection devices. This also means that cyber security is a big issue. Instead of hacking a computer or data centre, hackers only have to access a device that is connected to the internet. At the moment, many IoT devices are not well protected, meaning there will be an explosion of poorly protected entry points for hackers with the spread of IoT devices.

They have been exploited before. In October, hackers blacked out large portions of the internet by spreading malicious code through IoT devices. Alberto Yépez, co-founder of Trident Capital Cybersecurity, said to The Mercury News that this was probably a test run. He expects hackers to try and make money from this weakness in the near future. Predictions by Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., a cyber security firm, also point to increasing attacks on IoT in 2017: “In the coming year, we expect to see cyberattacks spreading into the Industrial IoT.” Rami Ben Efraim, Head of Governments, Defence, Critical Infrastructure Sectors at Check Point, recently spoke at hub conference in Berlin: “In a few years, we’re going to have billions of IoT devices which are going to automatically communicate between themselves. We will have to secure them.” So, the companies producing smart products are also under threat themselves.

While it might be nice to know if you get enough sleep on a regular basis, the price of a smart mattress might be high regarding the potential reduction in the privacy and safety of the internet as a whole. Try to sleep on that.


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