Who has more data about Gen Y: Facebook or the US Government?

Lately, I’ve been focusing on Baby Boomers, and even managed to anger and insult one of this prestigious generation. Now, I’ll turn my attention to Generation Y, also known as the millennials, digital natives or the MySpace/Facebook generation.

I realize that some don’t like this broad sweeping characterizations, but it’s important to look at the larger changes, we all realize that each individual is unique and different. Still with me? Let’s move forward and explore together.


I was speaking to a crowded room at Sun Microsystems a few weeks ago, and I posed this question to the room:

[Who has more information about Generation Y: Facebook or the US Government?]

I polled the room, and there was an overwhelming show of hands for Facebook being the dominant data holder. Next, I gave the example of my friend Teresa Valdez Klein (Pic: who I just saw in NY last week, and let her know about this upcoming post), who is an avid Facebook user and representative of Generation Y. She was an original Facebook user, she was a member while still in college. She self-expresses, she connects with others, and gives her opinion on Facebook and her fabulous blog.



Data found in Facebook about Generation Y

If you’re a Facebook friend of hers (I’m fortunate to have this honor) you’ll be amazed at how much information she shares. What does Teresa list?

Demographics
Current city of residence
Former college
Dating status and preference
Birthdate (some include day, month, and year)
Political Views
Religions Views
Pictures lots of ’em.

Psychographics and Interests
Next, she lists stories, pictures, media and articles that she likes, including some of her own comments
Interests (over 12 items listed for each of the following)
Favorite Music
Favorite TV Shows
Favorite Movies
Favorite Books
Favorite Quotes

Her Conversations
If you’re connected to her, you can see all the interests that she has by learning from her applications and widgets on her profile page. Some people put maps to where they’ve been, ideal characteristics in a mate/job/friends, and learn about where they’ve recently been on wall comments about parties, travel, birthdays, and other comments from friends.

Her Network Info
Perhaps the most valuable, is that if you’re a friend with her, you know her social graph. Then she lists all the folks she’s friends with, and if you’re connected to them you can see all of this info.


Data that we know the US Government has about Generation Y

I’m in no position to state what level of detail they have, but here’s my best guess:

What does the US Government have?
Demographics including age, sex, where you’ve lived.
Income, Tax information
Recent purchases, loans, mortgages
Marriage status
Travel status from TSA
If you were a person of interest, I’m sure they could easily focus in on you through ATM, Credit card, and cell phone activity (GPS or Cell location tracking)


Marketers drool to get this info, where members self-submit to Facebook
The interesting thing is that all of this content was self-submitted
, and while marketers are hungrily trying to give away sweepstakes and prizes to get you to register, joiners (what Forrester calls those who use social networks) opt in much of this data and more. Marketers must froth at this opportunity.

Of course, all of this leads to even more questions:

  • Now the real question is, does the Government have access (and use) the information available from our telecommunications companies, and/or Facebook?
  • So what’s scarier, the fact that Generation Y and others are willing to share so much online, or the fact that others may have access to this information.
  • If you’re a conspiracy theory buff, (I’m not)

  • you’d enjoy this big brother style video
  • Gap in Generation Ideology: Extroverts vs Introverts
    Just yesterday, one of my colleagues (Gen X), who sends pictures of her baby to the local office expressed she didn’t want to bombard us with photos. I suggested she put her photos on Facebook, as it’s more of a ‘pull’ content strategy than ‘push’. She said it made sense, bit despite her knowing there are permissions and controls, it still made her uncomfortable for the “world to see”.

    Back to you: Who has more information about Generation Y: Facebook or the US Government?

    35 Replies to “Who has more data about Gen Y: Facebook or the US Government?”

    1. The Feds, hands down.

      Anyone who thinks that the US Government cannot access what is in Facebook is in serious need of counseling.

      It’s as though the Feds aren’t savvy enough to use Google for information, either…

    2. Jeremiah: I think you’re overlooking that the govt has exclusive sources of personal info it won’t share – but it can always buy that commercially available marketing info.

      If you assume that all municpal, state and federal data is easily collected and combined (which is impossible), then the govt has way more:

      – tollway pass usage
      – parking tickets
      – housing price, renovation data
      – voting record
      – intelligence from foreign govts
      – easy access to your telephone conversations (don’t assume you need to be a person of interest to have your convos passively monitored)
      – large financial transactions
      – stock market activity
      – parole, social security, subsidized day care details.

    3. Isn’t this something of a false comparison — or an empty one? The government can get all sorts of information about us — driving records, academic history, financial data, and who knows what they’re gathering through their opaque wiretapping efforts. Clearly China is actually making use of their store of data whereas, at least for most citizens, the government just seems content to accumulate.

      Facebook is building a business on this kind of data; the government makes disclosure mandatory and is obligated to collect and store data to comply with various laws.

      I think ultimately if you collect the data but don’t a) act on it or b) make it available for the individual to leverage (inthe case of Facebook, through apps) this isn’t a very interesting comparison.

      I’m more worried about government incompetence in having this data than any kind of draconian dystopic future; plus, it’d be worse AFAIC, if Facebook sold to MSFT (a company I don’t trust — similar to Plaxo selling to Comcast) than the government hoarding this data.

      Put another way: regardless of who has more data, who is really more accountable to those about whom so much data has been collected?

    4. Colin

      Some of those that you listed are in my comparison above. Also, many Gen Y (the scope of this discussion) are not participating in:

      “- large financial transactions
      – stock market activity
      – parole, social security, subsidized day care details.”

    5. Ike, it’s quite possible the Fed can access Facebook.

      Chris, glad to have you around here, not sure I’ve seen you stop by before, I’m pleased!

      The methods you prescribe are one-off. Wire tapping requires a lot of resources to be done efficiently.

      Can you cite your source for this?

      “Facebook is building a business on this kind of data; the government makes disclosure mandatory and is obligated to collect and store data to comply with various laws.”

      And yes, your ultimate question about accountability is what matters, perhaps you could spearhead that from your blog.

    6. Jeremiah,

      Interesting take on the new marketing, a quick thought on Gen-Y and millennial “extroverts.” I would agree that younger generations are more willing to share content with one another and it’s probably fair to say that on some level our government is aware of that. But I think that it’s also an indication that the greater openness of younger generation is not so much about being extroverts as being part of an emerging culture in which openness ensures success on personal and professional levels. It’s not so much as if a whole generation of people “came out of the closet” but that they never learned that they had to be in a closet to succeed. The government may take advantage of this openness to some degree, but a government that does not leverage it as part of a conversation with its citizens will lose a key emerging strength of our culture.

    7. Hi Jeremiah
      I’m not really sure that I care who has more info, or how much they have. The use of that info and the accountability of the user is what’s important to me. Also, the info is not the same — what the government knows is vastly different than what I would put on a social network. But that’s probably why marketers are so interested in the Facebook, et al, info. Can Facebook be held to the same accounability standards that we would hold government agencies? No. But like I said, it’s not the same type of info.

    8. Well you also should keep in mind that in the very same way that I can easily see what social sites, banks, web-based email services, etc.. you use just from a simple browser call when you visit my site – what’s to say Google doesn’t do the same whenever you use one of their services (i.e. when you googled whether or not they can actually search facebook profiles)??

      It IS their ultimate goal to know everything about each user in order to better match up the advertising… so it’s something I wouldn’t put past them. Then you’d have to look into the frequency per day of the average Gen Y facebook user and compare that against how often they’ll even do just a quick google search – that could determine whether or not the data will come up (or if the cookie expires, etc..).

      I still think that Google has more info than the gov’t and facebook combined.

    9. Hey Jeremiah, thanks for opening the door on this one. This posts seems to be aimed at promoting the value of social networks as marketing tools, as apposed to really looking at what the government does and does not have. If you have been following the FISA bill in Congress right now http://www.opencongress.org/articles/view/530 you’d realize that in terms of scope and scale .gov has a hell of alot more information on people than any and perhaps every .com.

      That being said, yes, social networks are an amazing source of voluntarily provided marketing data, however, I think the real question is how do our products/services fit into this transparent model.

    10. Good post and good questions Jeremiah, but ours is the information era where everything is digital and therefore searchable.

      I’m 27, my little bro is 17. His peers are even more ingrained in this culture. The concepts of privacy will be completely different in the coming generation, it’s the trade-off we make for being digitally connected to our friends.

      Our lives are recorded now, Albert Einstein’s Manuscripts are available on-line. We live in a generation of content, shared information and accelerated growth. Someday I’ll be able to archive my life and hand it off to my children and grand-children. And not in some great written testament, just a big zip file.

      Millenials are living in a different world. And those children born 5 years will live in another different world.

    11. As a Gen Yer, this is an interesting question. I don’t own a credit card. I don’t have any parking tickets, and I’ve yet to start making enough to pay taxes. The government knows what I put on sheets of paper as it pertains to my financial history. I could lie about that at any point in time. That’s beside the point though

      However, the Government knows absolutely nothing about me as a person. Facebook knows my personal life. It would be much easier for a stalker or murderer to break into my Facebook account and learn everything about me than to take a bunch of data from the Government.

      There are two-sides of the fence here. The data that each one holds is different from the other. If you wanted an overview of me and my financial crisis, then the government has more data. If you want to me who I really am and my interests and my life in general, Facebook has way more than the Government could ever expect to get out of me willingly.

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    13. As the friend of someone who found a new ‘friend’ on Facebook and ended up being interviewed by the police as a potential accomplice, the government wins hands down. Facebook only has their own data. The government and criminal justice system has access to everything.

      In my friend’s example, the police presented precise details of every item he had shared, sent and received on Facebook. The investigation started on Facebook and led them to his ISP and mobile phone operator. They had copies of all email and SMS texts. And the investigation went a lot further than that…

      (He was cleared of any involvement.)

    14. According to an article in the Guardian in January of 2008, In Q Tel owns a percentage in Facebook- In Q Tel is owned by.. you guessed it, the US government.. the question as to who has more info on Gen y or any other demographic group between Facebook and the Government is in fact redundant.

    15. It may be cynical, but my first impression would be that the government isn™t organized enough to keep a great deal of information in one place, at least not in the same way as a service like Facebook is. On the whole, the gov™t probably keeps more stats, but who knows how to get at them all? Not me. I bet the folks at the Census Bureau wouldn™t know where else to look, if you asked them to go outside their department, either.
      But your question also reminded me of a study from a couple months ago that found that most social network profiles are inaccurate (http://media.www.webujournal.com/media/storage/paper245/news/2008/04/03/News/Study.Social.Networking.Profiles.Give.Inaccurate.Impressions.Of.User-3298036.shtml). Is gov™t data any more accurate? I™d say yes. I may be cynical, but I trust the government for info-gathering.

    16. I’m with matt. Anyone who’s read the 911 commision report would realize that even though the government (as if it’s one entity) has access to enormous amount of data, it takes an awful lot of coordinated research, systems integration and thoughtful analysis to create useful insight. Though there are many exceptionally smart people–and maybe some not so smart people–working for US intelligence agencies, I think their systems are a bit archaic and the organizations are burdened by bureacracy, no thanks to the current administration. They’ve got years of catching up to do to focus on those activities that do not relate to big terrorist targets. My $.02

    17. @matt
      @locoups

      1) The number of government employees who COULD get all your info is likely small. Just as in every company, there are only a handful of Google Ninjas who can find what you really want quickly and efficiently.

      2) Creating useful insight? If you are smart enough to extract that kind of data, you’re smart enough to give it context.

      3) Current administration has nothing at all to do with the state of federal IT systems. Those are all locked up in bureaucracies that are immune to patronage.

    18. Jeremiah, interesting post.

      I’m always amazed by how much information I’m willing to give up to become fully engaged in social networks. Should someone who is up to no good be trolling for data about me, I’ve certainly been more than generous and complicit.

    19. Jeremiah, great post. While I believe the government has more information on Gen Y than Facebook, I think you provoked a few thoughts and showcasing how much information really is on Facebook is fascinating.

      Data. data. data.

      Data is the new black.
      (always was)

    20. Shameless plug: for marketers to use all of that data, they need someone to organize it first. Facebook does a bad job IMO. At HiveSight (www.hivesight.com) we collect and index social network data in a way that really lets marketers explore and discover new insights.

    21. Both Facebook and the government have our personal information and both are willing to use it. The question is: are you a person of interest to them or not? They surely can’t digest all of our info unless you give them a reason to do it.
      So what to do? Avoid giving any information? No, just give away a lot of it to make it more difficult for the to digest. Give more and more about your self and about all the legal and good about you.
      Ahh. And never, never give away you bads and illegals unless you can proudly stand up and defend these as your rights. In other words don’t say you smoke pot unless you are willing to fight to legalize it. Don’t criticize the government unless you can stand up and defend your right to speak up. Etc.

    22. Are you telling me the US government can’t just walk into Facebook when ever they feel like it and get what ever information they want. Now come on.

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