Super-creepy! Privacy in the age of Big Data and personalization in travel

Earlier this year, I sat on a panel which had the title “Don’t be a supercreep!”, covering privacy issues in the era of big data.

During the panel at the EyeforTravel conference, the mention of some of the personalization methods already in use today caused more than one gasp in the audience.

The travel industry audience in attendance was, in a word, surprised.

What could cause such surprise? Let’s take a look at a couple of the methods discussed and their implications:

1. Use of third party data

One of the biggest uses of big data technologies is the ability to find patterns and information by combing through multiple large datasets. One of the examples given during the panel was the ability to find out about a user’s complete online identity with just an email address.

The implications of this are worth a moment of pause: imagine the possibilities. With your email address, one is able to determine what you talk about publicly — for example, on Twitter. Or Facebook likes?

If you haven’t updated your privacy settings, they’re fair game too.

LinkedIn profile? Yup. Even your music tastes are discoverable. And this is just the start.

2. Public records databases

As above, with an email address or name, public records databases can unveil a host of interesting information about you, including income level, what kind of house you live in, and more.

Is this necessary and/or useful if you sell travel? Perhaps.

Imagine your favorite travel brand starts recommending vacation packages based on what people with a similar demographic profile and income level bought.

3. Location

Mobile is the obvious next big frontier in data collection. Most major mobile operating systems already support technologies such as geofencing, which enables developers to draw a virtual “fence” around a geographic area and trigger application events when you (or your phone, at least) enters that geographic area.

Imagine if your favorite hotel brand knew just how often, when, and at what time you went near one of their properties?

Starwood’s iOS app is already using this technology to completely personalize the app around the property you’re staying at. Hotel information, weather, and local activities are put front and center when you launch the app.

Creepiness in action

A lot of the technologies above are not in widespread use by travel brands — yet. However, early experiments of travel brands using 3rd-party data, even if not automated and brand-wide, are already causing consumer backlash.

Take, for example, the Westin Edina in Minnesota, part of the Starwood group of hotels. According to several reports, the hotel’s front office staff were using LinkedIn data to verify whether guests qualified for the corporate rate they were booked under. Consumer reaction was blistering.

How could Starwood allow such a thing?

Turns out, this was just one example of a Starwood initiative called GPS (Global Personalization at Starwood). GPS, in Starwood’s own words, will “allow us to connect with guests on their own terms, in and outside of their stay”.

In fact, Starwood’s privacy policy explicitly allows for the collection of social media data to “better assist guests in understanding [their] interests”.

As with any new technology, it will likely take consumers some time to get used to and comfortable with practices like this.


The obvious question begging to be asked is “How far should this go?” In other words, when do personalization efforts stop being useful and really just creepy? The answer will differ for everyone and isn’t clear-cut.

For example, one could argue brands using a consumer’s purchasing habits to target discounts and coupons is incredibly useful.

However, the technology is now so good that in one famous case, it figured out a teenage girl’s pregnancy and started sending her pregnancy-related coupons before her family even knew.

With technology enabling so many possibilities, the limits are, ironically, very personal.


The usual reaction to any consumer-threatening technology or practice is regulation. However, the global nature of data severely hampers any sort of broad law covering the topic of personalization.

In the US, for example, regulators have taken the approach that as long as a practice is disclosed, it’s fair game. European regulators are bizarrely still worrying about cookies, which in the age of true personalization and data mining should be the least of their concerns.

In other words, the personalization party is without a parent or chaperone right now. Does this bode well for the industry? It’s not clear.

On one hand, as an industry still in its infancy, one doesn’t want overreaching laws to squash technical innovations that could be incredibly useful. On the other hand, unchecked innovation will always test the boundaries and often crosses them.

Perhaps it would behoove the industry to figure out some of its own limits before someone else does it for them.

The future

Undoubtedly, the future of personalization is bright. Several startups are already preparing for a world in which personalization data is a key currency.

Imagine marketplaces where retailers could buy, sell and trade personalization data such as your buying habits.

On the flipside, imagine a marketplace where you, the consumer, can choose to open up some of your personal data in exchange for some sort of consideration or restrict how your data is used.

All of these things are being worked on right now and bode for an interesting future for us all.

What do you think about the possibilities in personalization? What goes too far? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

NB: Eye big data and spying eye images via Shutterstock.

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Alex Kremer

About the Writer :: Alex Kremer

Alex Kremer is co-founder and head of product at Redeam, an electronic ticketing platform serving the tours & activities industry. He was previously Senior Vice President of Partnerships at Nor1, a leading hospitality merchandising provider. He joined Nor1 after it acquired Flextrip, a B2B tours & activities distribution network he co-founded. Alex is a 15-year veteran of technology startup companies, previously co-founding Cruvee, a business intelligence company for the wine industry where he led Business Development. Prior to that, he co-founded FanAxis, one of the world’s first fan club management and merchandising firms in the music and entertainment industries. Alex is based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter at axk.



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  1. john smith

    Linked in has expressed that they want to map every job and every candidate in the world so that they know about all jobs anywhere and all matching candidates anywhere. They know everything about you and they know everything about anyone you might turn to for help in times of crisis, including personal financial crisis.

    They also know everything about your political and social views , what policies you will support and what you feel strongly about.

    They know this from a wide variety of sources not least of which is the mutual sharing of their databases with other social sites’ databases and, if you exclude that option (and if they honor that request in both letter and spirit) they can still deduce the exact same information by accessing your the information from people you linked to. You can tell an incredible amount about a person from the opinions of people they are linked to.

    Think for a moment about the power this gives them.

    Anyone with a global view of this level of detailed information- information no one in the world has ever had access to- can seek to systematically influence the outcome for candidates based on their political beliefs and support or non-support for political policies.

    Tea party member? Your potential employer might be interested in that fact and there is no law which protects against discrimination based on political beliefs.

    Pro union? Ditto.

    For environmental regulation of green house gases? Well, a lot of people in business think your kind is the ruin of America, and a lot of those people have job postings.

    The heads and boards of multinationals would love to be able to systematically target for long-term “bad luck” unemployment the very individuals who, when they’re not at work support regulatory regimes for those multinationals.

    People who don’t have jobs don’t find much time for activism and anyway poor people don’t make very many campaign contributions and their opinions don’t matter much to politicians .

    Multinationals can use this information to systematically go after not just you but every other resource you have in the way of people you’d turn to in times of crisis. They can systematically target entire affinity groups for permanent financial ruination based on the political and policy opinions of the members of those affinity groups.

    I am describing a tool, a weapon, wielded by elites which is being built now and will be turned against you at a future date.

    Is that Linked In? You decide.

  2. sir loin


    still waiting on the zombie apokolypse

  3. Noam Zeigerson

    I believe that doing Business Intelligence and Big Data appropriately is a win-win situation.
    Both the business and the consumers can enjoy the outcome.
    Why hassling consumers with annoying and irrelevant promotions?! Why loosing the ability to serve information and brand when revenue is not relevant.
    What Aimee offer is making big data work to achieve your different business goals.

  4. Chenni

    Any innovation (technology or otherwise) always brings about a flip side which we should be cognizant about. I stayed away from Gmail for a long time when I knew that they published focused ads based on content of the email. Of course I succumbed to it over a period of time given everything else it offered.

    In the case of Big Data, I believe it just opens up a wide range of possibilities of “information” gathering. Organizations with massive enterprise datawarehouses already slice and dice (chop and puree as well?) their customer information for better segmentation. Regardless of Social Network or not we are all “studied” with or without our knowledge. As a customer, every time we connect with an organization through a phone call, email, query, chat – we pass on lots of valuable information. Now we are taking it to the next generation by collecting information from new sources.

    In my perspective there are 2 key actions that should happen:
    1) As an organization, one should take corporate responsibility not to abuse / misuse the information available.
    2) As an individual we should exercise caution on what we communicate publicly.

    Big Data in whatever name is here to stay. It is our choice to pioneer or to follow.

  5. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    So the question is perhaps do you do this for the same reason a male dog behaves in certain ways or do you take the moral high ground here?

    The assumption of the stupid consumer who is oblivious to these issues is naive at best. Let’s be clear that the result of the deployment of these tools is a reduction in Trust in your brand. Anyone who thinks they can just get away with it because the consumer has no option only has to look at the total number of sites a consumer looks at before making a selection. A Look to Book Ration of 1000:1 (typical for air) is not driven by random activity. It is driven by poor technology AND abuse of trust.

    But let’s think positively. Engaging the consumer does not mean gaming him. It means providing information in a suitable format that is actually useful and easy becomes OUR responsibility. Stepping up to that requires a moral obligation that I hope we all adopt. I am not waiting for a code of practice or someone else to tell me what to do. Nor am i going to do the bad thing just because A) I can (see above) or B) because everyone else is doing it.

    Your challenge boys and girls is to do the same. Are you up for it?

    I hope so


    • Chicke Fitzgerald

      Timothy – you are right on target in that personalization is not “gaming the consumer (or rather that it shouldn’t be).

      I firmly believe (is there any other way??) that we still need to get beyond the single dimensional view of the customer (one profile – one purpose of travel) and that until that happens, big data won’t help us better serve the customer at all.

      Contrary to the air-centric view of our industry, people travel using multiple modes of transportation, with their own cars being the #1 choice. That forces different behaviors than a single traveler traveling by air, as you can have multiple people with varying tastes, choices, levels of influence in the car.

      People also make different choices when the purpose of trip is different. A person who would never ever stay in a Super 8 motel on a business trip would definitely do so if attending a funeral or going to see their parents in a nursing home in Burley ID, where there is very little choice. Likewise, even a business trip preference can change if you are wooing an important client (bad form to stay in a 1 star hotel….) versus attending a training class where you may be more willing to economize.

      I would love to see us get to Individual Relationship Management (as to opposed to the notion of one on one marketing, which still tends to be single dimensional).

      Ah, but I’ve always been the dreamer and you have always been the practical one!

      • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

        OK – I will bite on that one.

        We are in violent agreement on the association of personas. Up till now curating personas has tended to be the manner of management. No one can describe in computer readable terms their ideal holiday/vacation. So trying to use the brute force computational horsepower is just plain dumb. Something that IBM learned with Big Blue when it went to Deep Blue it learned a lot of how to handle things. Research from Fair Isaac also demonstrated that comprehension cannot be necessarily computed with pure logic.

        Today we have new tools available to us at a lower price point. Using the tools in the same way that we used to – would be stupid. We need a different approach. That is interesting and one that is occupying some of our startup teams in VaultPAD.

        Anyone resting on their laurels and just thinking its going to be business as usual… well consider yourself in receipt of a yellow card.


        • Chicke Fitzgerald

          Is “yellow card” code for “pink slip”? 🙂

          We have cracked the code on multi-dimensional profiles and situational and intent based search. Now just looking for a bit of investment to implement it using a big data solution.

  6. Jean-Loic Cavazza

    I’d love to work on that subject, check my personal short manifesto:

  7. Alex Kremer

    Apropos article in the NY Times today:

  8. Super-creepy! Privacy in the age of Big Data and personalization in … | Errol A. Adams, J.D. M.L.S' Blog

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  9. Jenn Seeley

    Great post outlining the non-talked-about-often-enough details around privacy. It’s not at all surprising to me. I’m on the fence about being secretive about my habits online and off. If I’m going to have travel advertised to me, I’d rather it be something in my price bracket than not. (Maybe that’s why I never see much in the way of luxury cruises popping up on my Facebook)

    Occasionally, for fun, I’ve thrown out random words to see if it would generate a change in my advertising, and it does. So throwing off the marketers is a possibility, but maybe I’m just too nice. I’m on the big data side.

    Jenn Seeley – Community Engagement, Radian6

  10. Robert Gilmour

    I don’t really get where/how people dream up this stuff. Someone must have said ‘big data’ in a smoke filled room and the fantasy world got to work then deemed it – but as Big Data – to be a game changer in travel..

    I am a regular business and leisure traveller. I am a real traveller not an imaginary one. I talk with hotels and travellers all the time. Almost to a man, none of us fit or meet the descriptions of ‘today’s modern hyperactive traveller’ and all the attendant woffle and baggage that goes along with it.

    I am a European, based in UK, perhaps its different here. Not one of my hotel clients (189 and raising) sees the slightest benefit in prioritising, or even thinking about – all this big data nonsense.

    We continue to invent imaginary time bobs which, worryingly, might become real. The travel industry is crying out for a period of stability, not change.

  11. SaraVanh

    I found it very creepy that I will send a personal email, and next thing you know you get an advertisement on the right side of the panel with that same item you mentioned in the “private” email. I recently came across a website that is based all around privacy, no data mining, tracking or spying. A completely private platform, something that I am considering to use for all of my social media. The website is The privacy policy is very clear and there is no tracking of any sort once you enter the site.

  12. jeremy head

    Great post.
    I actually started pulling my data off Facebook, unfriending a load of people etc. I think the next step is to intentionally mislead the data crunchers by putting totally random made up stuff on your social profiles. In the real world when I can be bothered I stick direct mailshots I don’t want back in the post box with ‘return to sender not known at this address on them.’
    The reality of the situation tho is it’s coming and there’s not a great deal we can do about it.
    I hate the idea of people buying and selling my data in particular.
    Companies need to be very very careful about how they use this information. Ad retargetting is a great early example. If I get followed around the net by the same ad, sure I will see it. No question. But will it make me consider purchase – quite the opposite.

  13. Sceptical corporate traveller

    Quite probably we have already gone over the edge of the proverbial “slippery slope” into an overly observed and monitored society – but the real and awful negative consequences will not materialise for some time.

    The great irony is that the “monitored society” is being devised and accelerated by the one country whose citizens purport to value, and pride themselves on, great freedom. How easily people accept the pieces of silver! The founding fathers of th US would be appalled.

    “……As with any new technology, it will likely take consumers some time to get used to and comfortable with practices like this……” – No! As with any new technology, those with the control of it should be morally and legally constrained from abusing it – let’s get the cart in front of the horse!

    Recommendations for the 201Xs and beyond…
    – learn how to turn devices OFF, and do so when you don’t really need them. (“always on” is not actually necessary, nor does it always enhance life, nor does visibly being so make you better/cleverer/cooler/younger/better looking!)
    – learn how to disable all location services in your devices , how to manage them closely and do so
    – block ads, cookies etc. – few of them give you more value than they give to those pushing them.
    – remember there is no such thing as “free” I.e. no cost, it is just hidden, and be very circumspect about who is really getting the value. Corporations have MUCH more to gain than you do!
    – consider quitting (insert here your personal list of social media), go to a pub or cafe and talk to people.

  14. Susan

    Thank you Alex
    I believe using data the guest supplies us with enables us to serve relevant content a intervals that are convenient to the guest. That is using technology to deliver superior customer service.

    Tapping into someone s profile, although it is public, is the fine line that makes one feel violated.

    Geofencing is differs and I liken this to storefront signage. A person in an area looking for a specific cuisine are better served with this outreach. The individual who does not want to be Communicated with, can simply turn off the geo tracking.
    Susan D


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