Your verification ID is: guDlT7MCuIOFFHSbB3jPFN5QLaQ Big Computing: What happens when you know you are being watched?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What happens when you know you are being watched?

A couple of weeks ago a friend convinced me to add foursquare to my phone. I had been reluctant to add the app because I felt it was simply providing the company with free data to analyze and market. I gave in and added it anyway. However, I wasn't about to enter only my real check ins. I mean why give foursquare clean data to play with? So I checked into all sorts of odd places. Within a day my friend emailed me to be careful about where a checked in. It got me to wonder why? I mean who cares? About a week later I came across a tweet by SEOGoblin about being a surveillance society. It followed along the same lines of every predictive analytics talk I have been to in the last two years. These massive collections of data is enabling company to better predict our actions etc..

I began to wonder what was the impact of so much personal data being collected, and most people knowing they are being watch or analyzed?  I know I have changed my behavior because I know that data is being collected. I am willing to bet so have most other people. Which led me to the idea that all the data being collected on the internet or in social media sites like foursquare are feeling the influence of the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect says that people adjust their behavior simply because they know they are being studied. Usually the way you account for this is by having a control group, but where is a control group when the population is internet traffic, and everyone knows they are being monitored?

The impact of this is clear. If people are changing their behaviors because they are being studied or providing information that they believe will provide positive results to those who are studying them, then the predictive analytics that is produced from that data could be distorted or misleading.


  1. Or you could look at it this way: people adjust their behavior to the new norm, which is knowing that you are being watched. So long as they continue to think that, their behavior will be stable. From that perspective, it's old data that is no longer valid.

    Maybe people will forget they're being watched and revert to older patterns. But the older patterns were also based on a particular environment, which was itself different from some previous environment. There is no "natural" environment to use as a baseline; all behavior should be considered in the context of a particular environment, and a key question to ask about environmental changes is how they change behaviors.