Big data and big business

The significance of Big Data for marketing and businesses is indisputable. Growth hacking. Analytics. Big Data. These are all catch phrases and terms that form the basis for many marketing strategies. And all have one goal in common. How to grow a business, how to get consumers to buy more. How to earn more money.

Marketers rub their hands in glee when platforms such as Facebook allows advertisers to target their audience based on ethnicity, gender, interests, geographic location, music tastes and even political affiliation. Unfortunately, it is not that shocking to read about how Facebook allows advertisers to buy ads targeted at anti-Semites and other extremists without proper monitoring.
The fact is, Facebook provides the platform to allow this to happen, but we as users of the medium voluntarily provide information and data to enable it.

However, it seems the giant corporation is finally seeing its responsibility when it comes to being in possession of mass amounts of social data. In a recent blog post, they announced that they would be removing certain ad targeting metrics such as ethnicity and religion to avoid misuse. Further, Facebook also announced that they will be launching an advertiser education to teach advertisers the difference between “ad targeting and ad discrimination”.

This brings to mind an article by an academic, Linnet Taylor who argues for a framework for data justice across domains and systems. She writes about an accidental visibility that we as consumers, users of devices contribute to, “through our everyday behaviour to a huge range of actors, from the corporations that make the devices and systems we use, and the service providers who facilitate their content, to the data brokers who track our use of them and the myriad consumers of their products, which include governments, marketing firms, intelligence agencies and political parties.” (Taylor 2017:4)

Taylor refers to a use case in India where the world’s largest biometric database is in place. Known as Aadhaar, the biometric database was launched in 2009. Initially a voluntary service to allow those below the poverty line to collect entitlements with fingerprints or iris scans, the system is now mandatory for certain functions such as welfare benefits.

However, instead of serving the poor, Aadhaar, has failed them, argues Taylor. The design does not allow for identification of those over 60 who have no fingerprints left due to hard labour. Further iris scans are not usable due to malnutrition. The system also does not consider that if the family’s single registered claimant is unable to draw rations due to work, illness or otherwise, the family is unable to access its allocations.

Interestingly though, “the database does makes it possible for the ultra-poor to be transformed into consumers: its chairman has said that he envisages it as having strong potential for direct marketing to registrants and plans are underway to partner with Google so the firm can reach and profile its ‘next billion users’” (Taylor 2017: 5).

This case draws attention to the fact that big data and big business go hand in hand. Google’s sheer size and clout make the firm able to harness the goldmine of marketing and advertising data that is registered in Aadhaar. With this amount of data, Google will be able to provide information that will prove invaluable to companies and brands in targeting over 1 billion potential consumers.

Imagine if Google entered a partnership with the intention of improving the system for the billion users instead of using their data for profit. What kind of world would we be looking at? Instead, big players such as Google and Facebook consistently seek profit over responsibility.


  1. Emanuel Foukou

    I don’t know much about Aadhaar, but with what I have read about this organization in the past and from what I am reading now, it seems to be a good example of big data for de-development. Another example of data colonizing poor people while strengthening the neoliberal economic system.

    1. Lan Yu Tan

      Hi Emanuel,

      Yes, it’s a good example of data colonialism. I think it’s also interesting that the system is being hailed a success when the research shows that there are quite a few flaws that aren’t being addressed. But the platform has grown to a whopping 1.2 billion users as of July 2018 so any changes would be slow in coming. Thanks for commenting!


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