Data Supply Chains: The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data”

Search and Advertising, Internet, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Privacy and Security

Article Snapshot


danah boyd, Tamara Kneese and Alex Rosenblat


Data and Society Research Institute, March 17, 2014


The movement of data between actors and organizations creates data supply chains. This paper raises key questions about the combination of commercial data with public records to profile consumers. The ownership of this data is often unclear.

Policy Relevance

The rights and responsibilities of firms and consumers relating to the use of “big data” should be clarified.

Main Points

  • Consumer data such as location information, online activities, email addresses, zip codes, purchasing patterns, and public records are combined to create profiles used by private companies and governments.
  • Attempts to anonymize data can be reversed, allowing individuals to be identified.
  • Ubiquitous tracking has some benefits, but some find it “creepy;” is the “creepiness” of these data practices a good indication that there is a real problem?
  • Ownership of shared private and public data is often unclear.
  • Companies like Fitbit and Nike allow users to track their health and fitness; some information can become public, unless users are careful to adjust privacy settings.
  • The use of public records in marketing is controversial; is it unethical to target advertising to expectant parents or those who have suffered a death in the family?
  • Some brick-and-mortar stores scan the room for shoppers’ cell phones, quickly pull information about individual shoppers from public records, and use this to target marketing messages; how can consumers be sure that sensitive information is secure?
  • Key questions about big data include whether there should be limits on the use of public records for marketing, or how commercial data is used by government.


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