The fine line between personalization and privacy: Building meaningful relationships in the age of Big Data

Katrina Lerman

Author's note

Early in 2013, inspired by growing trends like the Quantified Self and Open Data, thought leaders like Doc Searls and Joel Gurin, and previous work by teams at Communispace, I set out to conduct some research on the topic of privacy and personalized marketing - the consumer experience today and how it might look in the future.

I started, like any good researcher, by immersing my-self in the topic. I read dozens of articles, blog posts, and whitepapers. I devoured Searls' rousing book, "The Intention Economy." I attended webinars and conferences on Big Data, Small Data, Open Data, Bad Data, Data Privacy - you name it.

Current events like the NSA PRISM scandal and the WikiLeaks trial kept these same issues in the headlines. But what struck me, time and again - in meetings at work, listening to panel discussions, over dinner with friends - was the undeniably personal nature of this topic. During a breakout group at a conference on privacy and big data, the conversation was punctuated with firsthand accounts of targeting gone wrong or the "creepiness" inherent in the business of data tracking and trading. That is, a room full of marketers - many of whom undoubtedly engage in these very practices - could not remove their "consumer hats" and discuss the topic without stumbling over the distasteful ramifications of treating human beings as data points.