' Charles Lu | MTTLR

Big Data and the Fall of Personally Identifiable Information

There has been no shortage of “Big Data” based start-ups in the last decade, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down. As computing power and sophistication continues to increase, the ability to process large sets of information has led to increasingly pointed insights about the sources of this data. Take Target for example. When you pay for something at Target using a credit card, not only do you exchange your credit for physical goods, you also open a file. Target records your credit card number, sticks it to a virtual file and begins to fill that file with all sorts of information. Your purchase history is recorded: what you buy, when you bought it, how much you bought. Every time you respond to a survey, or call the customer help line or send them an email, Target is aware. Anytime you interact with Target, the data and meta-data that characterize that interaction are parsed carefully and stored as Target’s institutional knowledge. But it doesn’t end there. As diligent as Target may be in monitoring your interactions, there will inevitably be holes. But fear not! Instead of settling for an inadequate picture of who you are, Target can just buy the rest of it from the other people you do business with. “Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings,...

The Broader Benefit of Benefit Corporations

Ello, an ad-free social network, recently closed another round of venture funding, raising $5.5M. Exciting right? Another social media start-up getting some Series A funding. While $5.5M is surely nothing to sneeze at, perhaps the more interesting feature of this next stage of Ello’s life is that it’s registered itself as a public benefit corporation, enshrining in its corporate charter as a “public benefit” that it will never show ads or sell user data. To date, 27 states have enacted legislation recognizing “Benefit corporations,” entities that give directors legal protection to pursue social and environmental goals over maximizing investor returns. According to benefitcorp.net, a defining characteristic of benefit corporations is that “they are required to create a material positive impact on society and the environment.” One of the largest early adopters of the benefit corporation form was outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia. In doing so, Patagonia sought a structure that would prevent shareholders from suing it in the pursuit of costly environment initiatives, such as donations to environmental organizations and support of renewable energy sources, that allowed it to serve the welfare of the global community. Warby Parker, with its initiatives ranging from staying carbon neutral, to providing lost cost eyewear to those in need, and even sponsoring a local Little League team, similarly sought the insulation of its directors through the benefit corporation structure. In both examples, the benefit corporation produces a direct, measurable and concrete positive impact on their communities and the environment. Ello’s election to benefit corporation status brings with it a tweak to what we’ve seen so far. Even though Ello has registered as...