Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Did WSJ go too far in exposing Apple employee home purchasing habits?

The WSJ published an article discussing the cost of houses in the Bay Area. As per the title of the article, "Apple Paychecks—One Reason for High Home Prices", the key culprit they highlight are the significant salaries that the Apple employees are allegedly paid.

The the data for the findings were based on the work done by Zillow completed "at the request of The Wall Street Journal" who "used census data to track down where workers in the census tract that is dominated by Apple’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters live—primarily neighborhoods in the San Jose and San Francisco metropolitan areas". It's not clear if they relied on their own data to complete this analysis. As per the graph below, Zillow tied the rising house prices to iPhone sales.

To be fair, and abide by full disclosure principles, the article does also blame "[z]oning laws and regulatory red tape are key factors as well". However, would it be the WSJ if it didn't lay such a charge?

Where to begin? The article raises a lot of issues in terms of the role of publicly available data - regardless if it is only the census data, data gathered by aggregators such as Zillow or social media sites.

As I had written a couple of years ago, the article actually is the promise of social media to "return us to the village". In the village privacy was limited because people knew each other and any deeds or misdeeds made by the individual were quickly found out by the community. A good example of how social media accomplishes this was role of public in identifying the rioters involved in the post-Stanley cup "celebrations". If such a riot had happened in the village, the rioters would be have been held accountable in a similar manner.

The Zillow-WSJ effort is really along similar lines: if employees of a company or members of a particular guild were buying up houses and driving up prices in particular area; wouldn't people in the village know?

Furthermore, it actually is village business. We need to understand how we will live with one another how we are going to make the most of living together in this shared space called community, which requires an understanding of how the actions of one group within the community will impact others especially when it relates to a basic need like housing.

That being said, it opens up the issue of big data and its ramifications on privacy.  Although the above rationale translates well into issues relating to communal benefit it doesn't translate well into issues relating to how private entities can handle the information they were given for a specific purposes. This of course refers to the concept of "consent" well-established within privacy parlance.

The authors of  Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think raised this issue in there book. As I had noted in a previous post:

"The authors, however, raise a much more interesting point when discussing privacy in the era of big data. They highlight the conflict between privacy and profiting from big data. They note how the value of big data emerges from the secondary uses of big data. However, privacy policies require the user to consent to a specific use of data at the time they sign up ahead. This would prohibit companies from big data. However, corporations in their drive to maximize profits will ultimately make privacy policies so loose (i.e. to cover secondary uses) that the user essentially has to give up all their privacy in order to use the service. What the authors propose is an accountability framework. Similar to how stock issuing companies are accountable to the security regulators, the idea is that organizations would be accountable to a privacy body of sorts that reviews the use of the big data and ensures that companies are accountable for the negative consequences of the data.

For those of use that have been involved in privacy compliance, such an approach would make it real for companies to deal with the privacy issues in proactive manner. We saw how companies attitudes towards controls over financial reporting shifted from mild interest (or indifference) to active concern with the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley. In contrast, no similar fervour could be found the business landscape when addressing privacy issues. Although the solution is not obvious, the reality is that companies will make their privacy notices meaningless in order to reap the ROI from investments made in big data."

No comments: