MIT professor sheds light on how data deserts, inaccuracy, and inequality skew digital profiles
By Paula Klein
Much has been said about the pervasive use –and misuse — of digital consumer profiles by online marketers. While profiles offer shortcuts and efficiency, they raise privacy concerns by choosing products for us, recommending medical treatments, and impacting our credit scores and financial standing.
But privacy isn’t the only concern that’s surfacing about data profiles.
Catherine Tucker, MIT Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management and a Professor of Marketing, has studied online economic trends for many years. She offered some provocative new perspectives at a recent MIT IDE seminar on Data Deserts, Data Accuracy and Inequality. Not only does her research challenge the accuracy and effectiveness of some digital profile methodologies, it sheds light on related social issues that must become central to the conversation.
In particular, not everyone is treated equally in the big data universe.
As a result, Tucker asks: Do personal data profiles perpetuate economic inequality and widen the digital divide? What segments of the population are excluded when profiles are created? What are the effects of these practices?
A 2019 research paper How Effective Is Third-Party Consumer Profiling and Audience Delivery?: Evidence from Field Studies that Tucker co-authored [with Nico Neumann, and Timothy Whitfield], explains how data brokers often use online browsing records to create digital consumer profiles that they sell to marketers as pre-defined audiences for ad targeting. However, the paper states, “this process is a `black box’: Little is known about the reliability of the digital profiles that are created or of the audience identification provided by buying platforms.” The authors investigate the practice using three field tests measuring the accuracy of more than 90 third-party audiences across 19 data brokers.