Profiling is the recording and analysis of a person’s physical, psychological and behavioural characteristics to identify patterns and classify/categorise the individuals based on those characteristics.

The personal information for the profiling is derived from many resources and processed by automated means to get results and insights into the personal aspects of a natural person. Capabilities of big data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning have made it easier to create profiles and make automated decisions with the potential to impact individuals’ rights and freedoms significantly.

Only classifying and categorising the individuals can constitute profiling even if the predictive analytics are not involved.

Three distinct stages of profiling:  

  • Data collection
  • Automated analysis to identify correlations
  • Applying the correlation to an individual to identify characteristics of present or future behaviour.

The purpose of profiling may be to:

  • Making predictions or assessment about the ability to perform a task,  interests, or likely behaviour.
  • Assess, or predict their capabilities in a particular context
  • To assist in identifying a specific subgroup of people
  • To sell products and to sell model and predict behaviour
  • Marketers may use profiles for target advertising
  • Companies may link profiles to individual’s identities

Uses of profiling

Profiling and automated decision-making can be useful for individuals and organisations as well as for the economy and society as a whole, delivering benefits such as:  

  • Increased efficiencies; and
  • Resource savings

They have many commercial applications; for example, they can be used to better segment markets and tailor services and products to align with individual needs. Medicine, education, healthcare and transportation can also all benefit from these processes.

Threats of profiling

Profiling and automated decision-making can pose significant risks for individuals’ rights and freedoms which require appropriate safeguards.  

Profiling can perpetuate existing stereotypes and social segregation. It can also lock a person into a specific category and restrict them to their suggested preferences. This can undermine their freedom to choose, for example, certain products or services such as books, music or newsfeeds. It can lead to inaccurate predictions, denial of services and goods and unjustified discrimination in some cases.   

What is profiling under GDPR?

The GDPR defines profiling as

'any form of automated processing of personal data consisting of the use of personal data to evaluate personal aspects relating to the natural person, in particular to analyse or predict certain aspects concerning that natural person's performance at work, economic situation, health, personal preferences, interests, reliability, behaviour, location and movement'.

The A29WP note that simply classifying individuals based on age, sex and height could be considered profiling.