Web Browsing Histories Now a Major Data Source for Analytics
An ISP's ability to sell our browsing history will create an additional big data source while expanding our digital footprints and further invading our privacy.
- By Mike Schiff
- May 26, 2017
With the April 3, 2017, repeal of FCC Internet privacy protection regulations established in October of 2016, Internet service providers (ISPs) will not be required to obtain a user's permission to sell the user's Web browsing history. Consequently, I expect this data to be actively marketed and serve as a major big data source for analysis.
In 1999, Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle in 2010), made his prophetic statement, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Today this is truer than ever as GPS devices, smartphones, ubiquitous indoor and outdoor cameras, toll booth license plate readers, search engines, smart watches, and voice-activated devices such as Amazon's Echo now monitor and record our actions and facilitate the invasion of our privacy.
The Rise of Data Marketing
Data marketing and aggregation vendors such as Acxiom and Epsilon learned long ago that they can collect and monetize consumer demographic and psychographic data by linking together disparate data sources. They can then sell or rent the data they collect to organizations seeking to create a 360-degree view of their customers or filter this data to target prospects that meet specific criteria.
Many of these data vendors got their start in pre-Internet days when data was collected by visiting town halls or court houses and physically inspecting public records -- or even by collecting data from product warranty registration cards. Today they often collect it directly from a wide variety of online sources.
Many marketers consider a consumer's Web browsing history to be one of the most desirable data sources. The repeal of the privacy protection regulations will allow ISPs to market this data directly to them or to third-party data aggregators.
For example, health insurance vendors might be able to see which illness-specific website pages a prospect visited; potential employers might investigate an applicant's browsing history to check on a candidate's interests or if the applicant landed on a competitor's online job application. Political campaigns could use data to determine potential donors; insurance companies practicing price-optimization could see if their clients were checking out competitors' websites and, if so, offer a renewal discount.
Of course, this data could also benefit users by allowing businesses to target them for more relevant marketing offers.
Is Privacy a Lost Cause?
Access to Web browsing data will provide obvious benefits to organizations and data warehouse practitioners that can take advantage of it. It will facilitate the accuracy of data mining and other analytics activities -- either for a specific purpose or in conjunction with other data sources to provide a more comprehensive view of clients and prospects.
However, it will also almost certainly further the invasion of our privacy. Unless we choose to live "off the grid" or perhaps use a virtual private network (VPN) to cloak our browsing histories, I'm afraid we must realize that our digital profiles have further expanded and accept McNealy's advice to simply "get over it."
Michael A. Schiff is founder and principal analyst of MAS Strategies, which specializes in formulating effective data warehousing strategies. With more than four decades of industry experience as a developer, user, consultant, vendor, and industry analyst, Mike is an expert in developing, marketing, and implementing solutions that transform operational data into useful decision-enabling information.
His prior experience as an IT director and systems and programming manager provide him with a thorough understanding of the technical, business, and political issues that must be addressed for any successful implementation. With Bachelor and Master of Science degrees from MIT's Sloan School of Management and as a certified financial planner, Mike can address both the technical and financial aspects of data warehousing and business intelligence.