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One's digital profile must be as protected as one's medical records

One's digital profile must be as protected as one's medical records
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The use of technology to steer our consuming behavior based on our personal choices has long been a fact of life.

When combined with demographic, political, medical and now, a pending massive accumulation of shared data about our financial choices, we will soon be capable of placing each individual into a singularly distinguishable "psychographic" digital profile.

Targeted groups will be first, followed by targeting specific individuals according to psychological variables, such as attitudes, values and fears.

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With this data, we will then have created the capability to identify each individual in our society through his or her digital and physical coordinates and their individual psychographic profile.

 

With such profiles, it would not be long before we use technology to go beyond manipulating consumer behavior for purchase decisions to affecting emotional behavior toward nefarious ends. We have already seen this in a general way using contrived social media postings in an attempt to affect voter behavior.

Targeting individuals directly through intimate knowledge of one’s family circumstance or anxiety level at a point in time adds a compelling emotional trigger to the interaction.  

How we began this journey of filling out our psychographic profiles in the digital space began quite innocently through digitizing our purchase behavior. We were seduced to purchase through telephone, radio, newspapers and TV solicitations and then more granularly through targeted marketing using census data correlated with localized survey data.

Direct solicitations were mainly by mail and telephone followed by other methods, including mailings with return post cards, return mailings that were designed to topple out of magazines and coupons that were clipped out of newspapers and circulars.

Purchase decisions were made and physical cash was used at retail locations. Payments requiring either a phone conversation or a final mailing used checks first, then credit cards. Later, all payment mechanisms used chip cards, either debit or credit, or alternates to cards, such as PayPal and Zelle, or touch-and-go mechanisms like Apple’s iPay.

From such purchase and payment data, one's pattern of consuming behavior was discernible, certainly to the issuer of the payment vendor who provides this data to the account owner. What is less understood is that non-identifying individual data can be used to uniquely identify individuals.

A 2015 study comprising three months of credit card records for 1.1 million people shopping in 10,000 stores, stripped of any identifying data using only the location of and the stores shopped, purchase values and time of shopping can be used to reidentify 90 percent of individuals.

Such data is already accumulated and made publicly available to market research firms.

Targeted solicitations from this data are now rampant. Payments to doctors, pharmacies, gyms and magazines provide further behavioral patterns about individuals. Voting records, insurance data, drivers’ licenses and public court records round out each profile.

All this had been known even before the internet, big data, artificial intelligence, data mining, drivers’ global positioning systems coordinates and social media began to refine psychographic profiling.

That social media and search engine companies have tapped into the buying behavior and political inclinations of society is an undisputed fact. Witness the recent congressional testimony of Facebook’s CEO on advertisers’ access to user data and Cambridge Analytica’s revelations on their use of Facebook's user data for political profiling.

A further step, changing how people feel emotionally, is subject to technological manipulation of profiling data. It was revealed in a 2014 paper in which Facebook gave researchers access to 700,000 Facebook users’ news feeds.

The researchers then reduced the amount of emotional content in the data feed by eliminating either positive or negative words. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite occurred.

These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.

Yet to come is a massive accumulation of shared data about our financial choices, whether by supplying such information to an artificially intelligent financial advisor or sourced for the Security and Exchange Commission’s Consolidated Audit Trail — a database accumulated daily of every person and every security they trade.

This will create the capacity to understand risk tolerances, financial anxiety levels and actions triggered by company announcements and local and global news. It will enable the completion of a psychological profile on individuals that will be the envy of any psychologist that had acquired such information by probing deeply into the minds of their patients.

Like the clients of lawyers, mental health and medical professionals who are prevented by law from releasing client data unless authorized, we individuals need to have that same control over our digital profiles.

To this end Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, is now working toward just such a control mechanism. Regulators need to prepare for a new order in individual privacy in this digital age when everything can be known about everyone and new profiling information is created in real-time. 

Allan D. Grody is president of Financial InterGroup Advisors, a strategy, research and acquisition consultancy.