How Far Is Too Far?


We’ve spent the last few months talking about Statistical Analysis Software, the SAS recruitment market and big data, but what happens when the thirst for the collection and granular analysis of data gets out of hand?


They Know My Birthday, Who Cares?


A valid point. There’s not much anyone can do armed with just your birth date. And it is also fair to say that each individual data element is completely inert. But, if you combine enough individual data elements in just the right way, there’s a toxic, Chernobyl-sized explosion waiting to happen…and it happened.


Cambridge Analytica said that it could move the minds of the American voters. The company boasted that it could develop psychological profiles of consumers and voters into a ‘secret sauce’ that would sway them far more effectively than traditional advertising ever could.


CA are accused of harvesting the data of some 50 million (possibly up to 87 million) Facebook users after an application developed by a British academic was downloaded by around 270,000 people. Reuters (San Francisco) writes, ‘[they] logged in with their Facebook credentials, according to Facebook. The application gathered their data and data about their friends, and then [the academic] passed the data to Cambridge Analytica, according to both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.’


Armed with that data, it is alleged that CA could get an in-depth understanding of the online behaviours, personalities and predilections of those users and could use that knowledge to somehow influence a national election.


Facebook staggered, like a drunk sailor on shore leave, from one PR disaster to another, Cambridge Analytica very quickly went into administration and presumably in 2019 we’ll get a Clooney-directed film starring Ben Affleck about one of tech’s biggest screw-ups.


What Are The Wider Implications For Big Data?


It seems you can’t open a news site on your tablet without hearing reports of yet another data breach, whether it’s a moronic NHS middle manager leaving a laptop in a taxi or a nation hell-bent on election fraud. It happens with such alarming regularity that the people affected by them – you and me – have become apathetic to the whole thing.


It’s like hearing a house alarm in your street. We used to be worried that a break-in was occurring, now all we want is for the bloody alarm to stop squawking because it’s interrupting Love Island.


If someone of ill-repute takes out a mortgage or a loan using your details, it’s almost impossible to trace the source of those details so when it gets reported, it’s treated like any other fraud with no leads – i.e. quickly shuffled to the bottom of Juliet Bravo’s ‘to-do’ pile of crime.


However, the world went into meltdown when the Cambridge Analytica story broke, so why has this one grabbed our attention?


The holy grail of marketing is for businesses to figure out precisely who their customers are and to then create products and services tailored for said customers. The emergence of big data has allowed companies to do exactly that – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy.


With access to an dataset of personality traits and particular habits, businesses can improve, amend and refine their service offering. For example, if you like watching sci-fi films on Netflix, they will recommend similar shows and films for you based on what you’ve seen before. When you buy a remote control car on Amazon, it will also recommend batteries. For sure these recommendations aren’t always perfect but generally speaking it works well for both parties – they can upsell and you stay on their site for longer, browsing what are ostensibly hand-picked products.


There’s ‘Good’ Manipulation, And There’s ‘Bad’ Manipulation…


Netflix and Amazon are examples of ‘good’ manipulation, in that an algorithm has discovered what YOU watch or buy, and has made recommendations based on that data. However an example of ‘bad’ manipulation is when vast amounts of personal data are aggregated into one place and it’s then used to manipulate vast amounts of people into doing one thing or another.


At a tech conference last year, the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica Alexander Nix said that two people with very similar characteristics – age, gender, income, family, viewing and reading habits etc – can have very different behaviour drivers. By adding this missing piece of the jigsaw to the mix, one can understand why people do what they do and they can be targeted to behave in a certain way, for example, voting.


It ought to be pointed out that what CA did prior to the Facebook thing was not much different to how content providers like YouTube and Netflix recommend videos and what most social networks do when they serve up adverts or push content your way in a non-chronological order. But there were two differences to what they did during and after.


According to, ‘First was the fact that it violated its agreement with Facebook to obtain the data profiles of an estimated 50 million Facebook users. Second, was the fact that people felt manipulated at scale believing that the company had fundamentally undermined the democratic process in several countries.’


A Blessing And A Curse…


Big data could well be the silver bullet for marketers, advertisers and businesses and for the most part, it’s put to good use, but sometimes, it can hurt.


Back in 2012, a father was forced into the embarrassing position of having to apologise to an employee of Target, the second-largest department store retailer in the US after his daughter was bombarded with ads and coupons for nappies, cots and baby clothes. The company had analysed her buying habits and according to, their ‘computers crawled through the data, they were able to identify about 25 products that, when analysed together, allowed them to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, they could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.’


Target knew she was pregnant before her father did. The curse.


The blessing however, is that imagine if the same kind of analysed data could let you know you were about to have a heart attack or a stroke before the manifestation of any physical symptoms – potentially saving your life?


We’ve Crunched The Data And We Conclude That…


…big data is a force for good, mostly. The market for data analysts, statistical programmers, research scientists, security and protection managers and mathematicians is on an upward trajectory in the same way that chimney sweeps were in the middle of the 19th century.


Take a look at the IT jobs on our website and to talk more about our daily requests for capable, experienced candidates in the big data and SAS sectors, call Adam Jouning today on 01582 742 682 or email

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