I was recently reading an article in the Washington Post about how companies collect customer data and use that data to segment their customers. If this article had been written in a marketing publication, it would have been yet another prosaically reverential article about the awesome power of Big Data (. . . yawn). However, because this was written in the Washington Post, the article is oozing with hints of dark conspiracies plotted by shadowy corporations hoping to exploit unsuspecting Americans (. . . gasp).The article’s headline speaks volumes about this conspiratorial slant: ‘The stereotypes credit card companies use to target us all’. From an outsider’s perspective, the process that marketers consider to be ‘strategic segmentation’ can easily be seen as discriminatory stereotyping. When seen through the lens of the average citizen, it’s amazing how quickly Big Data becomes Big Brother. All of this points to the sometimes tenuous relationship between market research and data privacy. Society seems to agree that it’s OK for companies to know about their customers, as long as they don’t know too much about their customers. The interesting debate is in where to draw that distinction: at what point does Big Data cross the line to become Big Brother? I honestly don’t know the right answer to this question. However, I think that there are two countervailing macro trends that will shape this conversation over the next five years: On one side, we have the debate sparked by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. Although the conversation is currently focused on limiting the personal data that the government collect for national security purposes, this will almost inevitably trickle down to limit the personal data that companies collect for Big Data purposes. On the other side, we have the emerging millennial generation. Given their comfort in wearing their social media hearts on their digital sleeves, millennials appear to be fairly comfortable in sharing their personal information and feeding the Big Data machine. Alas, I am no prophet, and I won’t venture to guess what the future holds. However, as a market researcher, I’ll be watching eagerly as these two counter-forces push and pull against the line that divides Big Data from Big Brother.

Dan Callahan is the President of Vivisum Partners and Founder of Research (R)evolutions.

See All Blog Posts By This Author