Understanding the Role of Public Online Data in Society

Consumer data can serve as a focus group, but how should it be used?

Data privacy and security have become important and hotly discussed aspects of public discourse recently. With recent concerns over election interference and major data breaches, there has never been a time where online consumer data has been viewed as so powerful and potentially problematic. Now, more than ever, corporations, policy-makers and consumers are asking the question: What role should online data play in society?

As one of the world’s leading providers of consumer insights from public online data, Crimson Hexagon is not immune to this discussion; in fact, we are central to it. As such, we feel strongly that we should be a leading voice in this essential conversation — to clarify some of its most often misunderstood aspects and to advocate for a more cohesive and comprehensive understanding of the role of public online data in society.

Before we get into the larger discussion, though, it’s important for us to explain clearly and fully what data Crimson Hexagon has access to and how we deliver it to our clients and partners. (You can read more about our policies in this blog.)

  • Crimson Hexagon only collects publicly available social media data that anyone can access
  • Crimson Hexagon does not collect private social media data

 

The distinction between private and public data is the heart of this debate, but there are many other aspects — including who uses the data and how — that are important factors for us, as a society, to discuss.

This post is just the beginning of a broader conversation, but it is an important first step. In it, we will look at three key questions about Crimson Hexagon’s collection of public online data and how that data and our analytics platform are used by our customers:

  • What exactly is meant by “public online data”?
  • Are there restrictions on how organizations, like governments, can use this data?
  • Can this data be misused for surveillance of individuals?

 

But, again, this is just the start. The real conversation is not about a particular social media analytics provider, or even a particular social network like Facebook. It is about the broader role and use of public online data in the modern world.

What exactly is meant by “public online data”?

Public online data is data that anyone can access, including, for example, any tweets from a public Twitter account, public posts or comments on forums, or publicly distributed news articles or blog posts. All of this public data is collected by Crimson Hexagon so that users of our platform can analyze it to understand large-scale consumer trends and preferences.  

What is NOT considered public online data? Social media posts published by private accounts and profile information from private social media accounts. This is private online data that Crimson Hexagon has never collected, and has no ability to collect.

Cambridge Analytica raised alarm surrounding the potential for misuse of private Facebook data, but public data appears to be coming under increased scrutiny as well. To be abundantly clear: What Cambridge Analytica did was explicitly illegal, while the collection of public data is completely legal and sanctioned by the data providers that Crimson engages with, including Twitter and Facebook, among others.

Crimson Hexagon, like all global organizations that gain access to public or private customer data, continues to evolve its data handling policies in accordance with GDPR and other regulations created to champion consumer privacy and choice. We are working closely with our data providers and our customers to ensure full compliance as these requirements as the needs and expectations of consumers around data privacy evolve.

Are there restrictions on how organizations, like governments, can use this data?

Crimson Hexagon’s data partners, like Twitter and Facebook, have policies in place that limit the ways in which certain entities can use their data irrespective of whether the data is public or private. Crimson Hexagon abides completely by those policies, and restricts access to its platform accordingly. For example, there are special sensitivities about how government agencies can use online public data, even though that same data is freely accessible by others.

Therefore, Crimson Hexagon, as well as our data providers, routinely vets all potential government customers that inquire about the platform and will decline potential customers with use cases that would violate policies of our data partners, like Twitter. Each government customer must contractually commit, in writing, to the detailed use cases that they will be pursuing on the platform.

Government contracts comprise a very small part of Crimson’s customer base, and US government contracts in particular are publicly disclosed. Government entities that leverage the Crimson Hexagon platform do so for the same reasons as many of our other non-government customers: a broad-based and aggregate understanding of the public’s perception, preferences and sentiment about matters of concern to them.

Can public online data be misused for surveillance of individuals?  

Crimson Hexagon only allows government customers to use the platform for specific approved use cases; and under no circumstances is surveillance a permitted use case. The most common use cases are large scale public opinion research and measuring the success of their communication efforts. Each potential government customer must contractually commit, in writing, to the use cases that they will be utilizing the platform for in their agreements.

By its very nature, the public online data that Crimson collects and analyzes only consists of public information. No one using Crimson Hexagon would be able to learn anything about an individual that isn’t already contained in publicly-available data.

Are there changes coming regarding how organizations can analyze public online data?

We realize that this is a constantly evolving topic, and we will continue to update our customers and partners with any changes. However, one thing will not change: Crimson Hexagon does not collect private data, and it will never do that.

The growing attention around online data in the face of GDPR and similar regulations has raised many questions about how this data is gathered, how it is used and to what end.

Ultimately, all of this boils down to one incredibly important question: what role does public online data play in our society? This question has been quietly important for years, and it will become increasingly urgent in coming years.

Public social media is a potential force for democratization: Now anyone with a Twitter account can make their voice heard. Our part is helping organize the individual voices into a bigger picture, to understand trends and themes and how they change over time.

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