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Facebook and Cambridge Analytica – A Turning Point in Data Collection?

With recent breaches and misuses of data, it is imperative for industries that rely on data collection to enact policies to regain public trust.

One of the biggest news stories this week has been Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm focusing on data collection, data mining, data analysis, and strategic communications, and their questionable data collection practices with Facebook during the 2016 US presidential election. Don’t get me wrong, Facebook has a lot of questions to answer, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is already being called to testify in Congress, but that is not the focus of this blog. The bigger question that this news has brought up is around data collection in general, and for firms that collect data – with private information or not –and how this will affect our industry.

There is already some activity to give users more ownership over their data with the coming GDPR legislation in Europe, but with the Cambridge Analytica news, I want to pose a question: Is this a new turning point in data collection?

By this, I mean, what changes in data collection rules will be created to address this? And, how will this impact how the market research industry collects data from its respondents?

Market research companies have been sharing data with each other for years, but the trend of appending data from third party sources to provide additional information is rapidly growing. Today, many researchers create a wider depiction of the market by combining panelist data with things such as Facebook likes, usage information from apps like Snapchat or Pandora, information from credit bureaus, and many other forms of behavioral data that most of us have agreed to share when we click through those lengthy terms and conditions without reading.

To be clear, it appears that Cambridge Analytica collected its data under the guise of “academic research” in the form of a psychological/personality test that never revealed to users that it would be used to target them and their Facebook friends regarding election campaigning. This clear breach of personal information laws and lack of disclosure is what has created the firm’s legal issues, but the parallels between academic and market research industry data collection are well-defined.

Given the high-profile nature of this Cambridge Analytica and Facebook news, there will be upcoming discussions in Washington, D.C. and statehouses around the country about potential legislation to further regulate the sharing of this type of data and information, but that might not be as crucial to researchers as addressing this topic with the general population.

At what point will consumers start refusing to share their personal data? This could compound much further than deleting a social media account. Will panelists start refusing to participate in usage tests that collect their address to ship them a product? How much trust in research remains? We’ve already seen the decades-long drop in willingness to participate in phone research, preferring to instead participate online behind a screen. Going forward, can we expect respondents to be as forthright in research about private topics such as their health or finances?

With recent breaches and misuses of data at Equifax, Ashley Madison, and now Facebook, respondents are more likely than ever to step back and examine where their data is going. Because of that, it is imperative for the many industries that rely on data collection to consider what could happen next – and enact policies to regain public trust.

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Adam Dietrich

Adam Dietrich

VP, Global Client Services, EMI Research Solutions