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Data Mining Your Secrets
February 16, 2012 11:30 PM   Subscribe

How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did (excerpt from How Companies Learn Your Secrets (single page))
posted by meowzilla (121 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's creepy.

... but also really, really cool. Data mining is a fantastic field.
posted by Xany at 11:42 PM on February 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


...meanwhile, the teenaged boyfriend received coupons for security lighting and body armour.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:10 AM on February 17, 2012 [12 favorites]


It's hard to walk around with a Target on your back.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:12 AM on February 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


... and that's why it's often better to make your small purchases in cash, if you're concerned about privacy issues like this.
posted by vhsiv at 12:17 AM on February 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are a couple of apocryphal stories I've heard:
- Supermarkets have discovered that when a woman gives birth her husband buys more beer, and have built this into the design of stores (based on loyalty card data)
- Credit card companies reckon they know a couple will separate 18 months before they do, based on spending patterns (more, but cheaper wine, etc I suspect).
posted by DanCall at 12:19 AM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


Data mining seems like a good thing, but I know some guys who were hurt when a data mine caved in. These guys were fairly macho men who happened to have names like Addison or Reese or Morgan or Taylor, and they were completely buried under an onslaught of feminine catalogs.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:28 AM on February 17, 2012 [39 favorites]


And this is why we can't have nice things
posted by rough ashlar at 12:31 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


security lighting

Now that I've misread that, I'm really want to buy some security lightning.
posted by flaterik at 12:54 AM on February 17, 2012 [13 favorites]


There are a couple of apocryphal stories I've heard

The book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping is chocca with similar stories. It's fascinating stuff, and scary to think that since it was written how much more they must know now with the ubiquity of loyalty cards and the blossoming of big data mining over the last decade or so. Scarier still is where it's going with mobile payments and the decline of cash money.
posted by titus-g at 1:27 AM on February 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was *this close* to buying a dildo from Target.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:20 AM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


We walk in, fill a shopping cart, pay in cash (with no "loyalty" card), and walk out. If they want to know more, they'll have to follow us home and help us unpack the groceries.
posted by pracowity at 2:28 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was *this close* to buying a dildo from Target.

Oh please show us the URLs to the Target.com website to these products.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:29 AM on February 17, 2012


The place: Metafilter
The words: I [Blazecock Pileon], *this close*, and dildo.

In the words of the immortal Nicol Williamson: "A dream to some; a nightmare to others!"
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:34 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Slightly more seriously: will no one think of the children? Why are corporations allowed to gather data on minors like this?

Even more seriously: Just wait until cross-company data mining let your insurance company figure out that you have cancer before your doctor does so they can deny you coverage!

I am glumly awaiting the news that the above sentence is not paranoid fantasy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:38 AM on February 17, 2012 [30 favorites]


Just wait until cross-company data mining let your insurance company figure out that you have cancer before your doctor does so they can deny you coverage!

Not to mention what they could predict long-term if they tracked your consumption of junk food and alcohol. They could figure out what you will die of before you have had time to develop any symptoms. And potential employers might be interested in buying lists of drinkers and smokers and matching them to job candidates. "Hmm. Eats like a pig, drinks like a fish, and smokes like a chimney. Unless we have a spot in the Department of Tired Similes, I don't think we want this guy."
posted by pracowity at 2:52 AM on February 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Even more seriously: Just wait until cross-company data mining let your insurance company figure out that you have cancer before your doctor does so they can deny you coverage!

Whoa.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:53 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure it'd be legal to do this kind of datamining for your CAR insurance premiums.
posted by amuseDetachment at 3:06 AM on February 17, 2012


Isn't it a pre-existing condition if they can figure it out first? (defiantly no paranoid fantasy)

There are vibrator controlled by bluetooth or iPod, but afaik Apple never released on themselves.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:08 AM on February 17, 2012


To be more specific, I can think of no legal barrier for your car insurance company to pay Target or your supermarket (or your magazine subscriptions, etc) for your purchase habits to cluster into risk profiles.
posted by amuseDetachment at 3:10 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Genetic insurance discrimination: Illegal
Data mining insurance discrimination: Wild frontier

On the one hand, as a CS student this looks fascinating and like a field to possibly go into. On the other hand, it looks mildly terrifying where it could be going. ((Then again I get the sneaking suspicion that that's going to be the case for most interesting new fields...))

Of course, also in the realm of 'fascinating and newly-expanding', I wonder if/how this'd be combined with drones/UAVs. Watch traffic patterns in aggregate, perhaps?
posted by CrystalDave at 3:10 AM on February 17, 2012


If they want to know more, they'll have to follow us home and help us unpack the groceries.

Or, you know, just watch the in-store surveillance cams. (Yes, they also do that: somebody I know quit his MBA after an argument with his marketing professor about its legality).

To be more specific, I can think of no legal barrier for your car insurance company to pay Target or your supermarket (or your magazine subscriptions, etc) for your purchase habits to cluster into risk profiles.

In the EU, the Data Protection Directive. For some reason or other, the German public in particular is awfully reluctant to let anyone be able to cross-reference such databases.
posted by Skeptic at 3:21 AM on February 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is only the beginning.

It reminds me how on google plus the suggested connections for me, a Dutchman, were exclusively English/American names: members of metafilter. Nobody I knew.
There's no direct connection between my google email account and metafilter. I think google has done a social network crawling of metafilter users and linked that data up with their email users. Rather creepy.
posted by joost de vries at 3:23 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Data mining in regards to purchases is an important issue, trouble is when I know about it, it never seems to work, and when I don't know about it, it seems like the companies are consistently taking/tracking data that I would NEVER give them access to if asked.

Example: I own an iDevice, and this week it looks like - what should have been innocent - apps have been harvesting my address book details. That makes me feel bad (and worry about my personal data), because it feels like *I* compromised my friends privacy by proxy.

Counter Example: I do grocery shopping online almost every week, from the same site that I have for about three years now. The company often recommends purchases, and insists on recommending me cheap pork/pig products even though I have only ever bought chicken ONCE and have never, ever, bought any other meat based products from them before. The system also suggests cheap crates of alcohol EVERY TIME I SHOP, and I have never, ever bought alcohol online.

I am upset about the iDevices and can see many reasons why many people are at fault for the stupid intrusiveness of it all, but I would actually like my Supermarket to highlight things that (when online shopping) I might not otherwise see, but which actually apply to my buying habits.

I could also discuss in length the mind-boggling foolishness that is the Amazon suggestion engine, but I shall stop before I rant. Also it gives me another reason (amongst many other ethical ones) to stay the hell away from Amazon as an online retailer.
posted by Faintdreams at 3:24 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the NY Times article on the same:
For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. 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, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own.
If I hadn't already stopped shopping there because they stand behind their pharmacists who refuse to sell emergency contraception, I'd stop shopping there for this reason. It's creepy.

Even worse is that, when confronted with the idea that it creeps people out to know what they are doing, they hid it rather than stopped.
posted by Houstonian at 3:26 AM on February 17, 2012 [11 favorites]


Speaking of car insurance, I can see the whole black box GPS trackers being a textbook case of something introduced as a benefit that later became a requirement (or something that can only avoided by taking out the premier privacy plus ® policy at ten times the cost).

Ditto wearable remote health monitors, once they start becoming mainstreamabubble.

This may well be the moment in time when it's decided whether privacy is a right or a commodity.
posted by titus-g at 3:31 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The system also suggests cheap crates of alcohol EVERY TIME I SHOP, and I have never, ever bought alcohol online.
They're recommending alcohol because it's high-margin. Even if they recommend alcohol, and a lower percantage buy it, rather than having a more accurate recommendation, it's still more profitable. Their criteria is probably profit multiplied by conversion effectiveness.

This system isn't trying to find the perfect grocery item for you, it's trying to maximize profits for the store.
posted by amuseDetachment at 3:31 AM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


Good work Target. But how long until you can figure it out before even she does?

(My bet is on five years.)
posted by mariokrat at 3:59 AM on February 17, 2012


I read this article last night. The thing is, Target never sends me coupons. (And the ones that come off the cash register are hit and miss, but not as bad as CVS, who desperately want me to buy 'beauty products'.) Is it that they've deduced there's not likely to be a pregnancy in my neck of the woods or does the fact I buy little besides milk and cookies make me not worthwhile?
posted by hoyland at 4:09 AM on February 17, 2012


Or, you know, just watch the in-store surveillance cams.

But they won't know who I am or where I live.
posted by pracowity at 4:11 AM on February 17, 2012


Or they know anyone who shops at the downtown Minneapolis Target is either an office worker or doesn't have a car, so is pretty much a captive audience. (They have a parking voucher system, but why would you drive to the piddly Target?)
posted by hoyland at 4:11 AM on February 17, 2012


The better the risk information insurers have and can use in assessing coverage and premiums, the cheaper insurance gets for everyone on average, because insurers don't have to pass on the deadweight cost of (actuarially) unexpected loss. You can thank data mining for the $250k/500k liability car insurance you can buy for $100 a month and not $500. (When you heavily constrain both the collection of risk information and the ability to act on it, you get a mess like the US has in the "health" "insurance" business.)
posted by MattD at 4:14 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


My take:

Let them collect what they want. Let them sell you what they want.

But don't let them hide their discoveries in the middle of randomized coupon booklets. The customer should really get to know how Target is making its decisions, and the indy consumer isn't going to get that effect from their own accounts book.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:16 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do they stop to think that the girl might have been keeping this private for very good personal safety reasons, or that she might have recently miscarried? I'm horrified at what some people will do to make a dollar.

I write this as someone who was nearly outed at work by Amazon. I was seeing a guy in Eastern Europe at the time and used to buy British and US comedy DVDs for him, which he couldn't buy over there. By the time I got to Will and Grace Series 5, Amazon decided that I was gay, so when I opened their website at work, they splashed an invitation in big letters on my screen to "celebrate LGBT Pride with them" and to purchase something called Dante's Cove as my guilty secret. Of course, they had no way of knowing if someone was looking over my shoulder or what impact that might have on my employment. And there was no option to turn this off, so I had to load up my basket with Pamela Anderson calendars, a 24 piece drill set, Iron Maiden CDs and a baby stroller to try and convince them they'd made a mistake. (What finally did the trick was a Geoffrey Boycott autobiography.)

If a person started a conversation with a stranger about their sexuality or reproductive status based solely on assumptions without caring who else could hear, we would think they were an insensitive douche, so why do companies think it's OK?
posted by UnreliableNarrator at 4:46 AM on February 17, 2012 [50 favorites]


$100 a month?!

Crumbs, chief, even when I had insurance on a car (200bhp, 0 to 60 in 7s, so not exactly a low insurance band), a motorbike (100bhp, 0 to 60 in OMFGIMGONNADIEWHEEEEEREE!!!!), and a microlight (0 to 60 at 9.8m per second squared if you do it wrong & had $1.2 million liability coverage alone) simultaneously my combined insurance was under 500 of your U.S. dollars a year.

I don't, however, have any meerkats, so there is that.
posted by titus-g at 4:48 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


But they won't know who I am or where I live.

Sure about that, are you?
posted by evilmomlady at 5:19 AM on February 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


We need a MiFi loyalty card swap. I'll send you my CVS/Safeway/whatever cards, you send me yours, and after a few months we send them to the next people on the list.
posted by get off of my cloud at 5:24 AM on February 17, 2012 [27 favorites]


I don't know if I learned it here or elsewhere, but if you need a loyalty card to get a price break, Jenny's phone number almost always works. At least until the data miners catch on.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 5:29 AM on February 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


So Forbes is all paranoid about a department mining your purchase data and making conclusions, but then sprays the bottom of the page with Facebook and Twitter sharing links. Oh, the irony.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:35 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh please show us the URLs to the Target.com website to these products.

Not a dildo but... Walgreens has some personal massagers that look like penises.
posted by drezdn at 5:46 AM on February 17, 2012


But they won't know who I am or where I live.

Here is an article from four years ago saying that the distance an RFID card could soon be read at was 40 inches. Imagine how much progress they've made since then.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:50 AM on February 17, 2012


We walk in, fill a shopping cart, pay in cash (with no "loyalty" card), and walk out. If they want to know more, they'll have to follow us home and help us unpack the groceries.
posted by pracowity at 5:28 AM on February 17


They already know more you than you realize, my special little snowflake.

First, they know that you are the kind of person who shops at Target (or wherever), because you are there. Therefore you are not the kind of person who shops at Walmart, Costco, BJs, or Sam's Club (ie. the set of places you don't shop). This is information about you. Target pulls for a type of person, and you are there, therefore you are that type of person.

Second, they know you are the kind of person who pays in cash. If your purchases go beyond the bare minimum of WIC groceries, include any impulse items, or you ring up more than a de minimus amount at the register, it means that you are not paying in cash because you are poor, or because you are old, but because you are paying in cash on purpose to avoid credit card data mining.

They have run endless models and correlations of products that are bought together for cash. They analyze this data on an hourly basis all the way to a seasonal basis. Do you shop at night, in the morning, on weekdays, or on weekends. There is a profile for each of those kinds of consumers. Do people who pay in cash have a higher propensity to buy certain cereals, or packaged goods, or soaps?

You can say that you could shop anytime, or change what you buy, but you won't. Habits are habits to the person who has them, to everyone looking at that person, they are patterns. All patterns can be recognized, all patterns can be exploited. All patterns are exploited.

You think that because they don't know your name they don't know anything about you? You name is completely irrelevant. You didn't even pick it.

Just because they don't know who you are doesn't mean they don't know what kind of person you are. And if you are basically like everyone else, because you shop at the same stores, buy the same products etc., what difference does it make whether you pay with cash or credit? So you can avoid getting a coupon from them for a product that you might want to use? You really showed them.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:10 AM on February 17, 2012 [30 favorites]


From the story:
“We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”
No bloody kidding. These days, if anyone claims that companies are capable of ethical self-regulation, I think it's okay to break into hysterics.
posted by vanar sena at 6:10 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I write this as someone who was nearly outed at work by Amazon.

This reminds me that when I was deeply closeted, I avoided using bank machines in the gay ghetto. Totally irrational, and yet...
posted by sevenyearlurk at 6:22 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


This used to basically be my job (not for Target, but a different retailer). Probably it will be again someday, the way things are going.
posted by mkb at 6:32 AM on February 17, 2012


Data-mining can lead to some hilariously off assumptions. For example, I've started getting NRA pleas and don't own a single gun. My best guess is that's it's because I have a woodworking magazine subscription.
posted by drezdn at 6:33 AM on February 17, 2012


I hate how common it's become for retail stores to ask for your email address when you make a purchase. Not big places like Target/Walmart where getting you through the checkout as quickly as possible is a priority, but more specialized stores for clothing or healthcare or whatever. I always opt out, and the clerk always looks at me a little funny because why would you object to someone else knowing what clothes you buy?

Well, I just do. And I shouldn't have to justify it.

(Also, if you haven't already, read Feed by MT Andersoen. If you weren't scared about datamining before....oh boy.)
posted by Phire at 6:39 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Anybody making money off of my personal info should be required to negotiate with me and offer me fair market value for the information before economically exploiting it for themselves. If you're buying and selling my personal info, you need to offer me a fair market value for it and give me a right of refusal. Period. This unregulated, wild frontier "brave new world" bullshit needs to stop.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:53 AM on February 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


They already know more you than you realize, my special little snowflake.

I'm pretty sure I understand what you're trying to say, here--that just because they don't have a name doesn't mean they're not tracking the purchase.

But I think the poster's point was that--though their purchase information is of course recorded--it is only really available in aggregate and thus isn't personally tied to a particular person/household.

At least, not yet. Between face recognition, personalized coupons, analysis of purchase history (what about, say, medications?), correlation with data purchased elsewhere, and all sorts of other things it'll be harder and harder to escape, even with cash.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 6:57 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


That NYT article covers a lot of ground in a nicely done way. Thanks for the link. And agreed with saulgoodman; we need to be paid for this trafficking in the data of our personal lives.
posted by mediareport at 6:58 AM on February 17, 2012


I don't shop at Target very often. My Target purchases over the past two years consist of plain t-shirts, Nerf swords, an rc helicopter, board games, a garbage can, and some cereal.
They think I'm fifteen.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:59 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


The last time I looked at my google track data analysis they had my sex right but my age was way off. Is it legal to track prescription drug purchases? That looks like a massive lawsuit in waiting if it is.
posted by bukvich at 7:04 AM on February 17, 2012


The craziest part of this story to me was the father's response to Target once he found out that his daughter was indeed pregnant: "I had a talk with my daughter. It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology."

What? No, guy, you don't owe Target an apology for being upset that they sent your minor child pregnancy-themed ads. The issue here is not whether they were incorrect in assuming that your daughter was pregnant, it's whether they should have send the ads at all. They don't turn out magically to have made the right choice here because they happened to have guessed correctly on the facts.
posted by Copronymus at 7:16 AM on February 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


The creepy thing isn't that Target know when women are pregnant. The creepy thing is that they know and they try to hide it.
posted by storybored at 7:20 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anybody making money off of my personal info should be required to negotiate with me and offer me fair market value for the information before economically exploiting it for themselves.

They did negotiate with you, by proxy. You agreed to the terms and conditions of the debit/credit card used to make the purchases in question. If you have a loyalty card and use it, you also agreed to the terms and conditions of that program.
posted by jbickers at 7:36 AM on February 17, 2012


That NYT article covers a lot of ground in a nicely done way. Thanks for the link. And agreed with saulgoodman; we need to be paid for this trafficking in the data of our personal lives.
posted by mediareport at 6:58 AM on February 17 [+] [!]

They will argue that you are already being paid for your demographic data, in the form of money-off coupons.
posted by kcds at 7:50 AM on February 17, 2012


They did negotiate with you, by proxy. You agreed to the terms and conditions of the debit/credit card used to make the purchases in question. If you have a loyalty card and use it, you also agreed to the terms and conditions of that program.

Unfair contract terms and conditions that are buried in reams of fine print that companies know that no one will ever read (or know how to read) have been illegal in the EU since 2007. The same protections should be in the law in the US, but I'm not holding my breath.
posted by blucevalo at 7:51 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anybody making money off of my personal info should be required to negotiate with me and offer me fair market value for the information before economically exploiting it for themselves. If you're buying and selling my personal info, you need to offer me a fair market value for it and give me a right of refusal. Period. This unregulated, wild frontier "brave new world" bullshit needs to stop.

I think that data-mining is creepy as hell, but I'm not so sure that this is workable in practice. You are standing in a store, which is, depending how you want to look at it, either a public space or a private space that you don't own. In either case, your expectation of privacy is fairly attenuated. Extending your sense of privacy out in the other direction has implications not only against corporations that sell you stuff but also photographers and citizen journalists and actual journalists and a whole host of other people.

Also, I'm not entirely sure that this information is unambiguously yours alone. If I sell you something, the facts surrounding that sale are just as much my own experience as they are yours. If I'm a bystander and happen to notice what you're buying, or wearing, or whatever, that's information about you, but I'm not entirely sure you're entitled to exclusive ownership of it, either, because even though they are about you, those are in an equally fundamental way my own memories and sense-experiences and observations.

I don't much like how persistent this information has become, and I really don't like the idea that it is in the hands of entities which could in principle never die*. But I'm not, ultimately, sure how to stop it in practical terms.

* Corporations or governments, it doesn't matter.
posted by gauche at 7:55 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Remember the days when computing seemed like the next frontier of self-expression and freedom, instead of something to be feared and distrusted?
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:58 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


In either case, your expectation of privacy is fairly attenuated.]

Doesn't matter what my expectations of privacy are. If people are profiting off of my information, I should get a seat at the table and an opportunity to get a cut of the action. If anyone else has a right to economically exploit it, then I have a right to get a piece of the action and control how it's economically exploited.

The right to control how your image and likeness is commercially exploited is already a long-established principle in law. There's not even anything new in these legal principles, it's just that people are flagrantly disregarding them and acting like they're entitled to do it because they keep getting away with it. It's completely practical to start punishing the crap out of people for transgressions in this area, if there's political will for it.

Also, I'm not entirely sure that this information is unambiguously yours alone.

Doesn't matter. It's even more ambiguously yours to buy and sell. If I don't have a legal right to it, why should someone else? Simple. They shouldn't and don't. Corporations just don't give a damn, the same way they don't give a damn about forms of labor exploitation that are explicitly illegal already. All that has to change is that we start demanding the law be enforced equally on all sides of the social contract again.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:03 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Related ACLU classic: Ordering Pizza.

Non-flash version on youtube.
posted by likeso at 8:04 AM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


Remember the days when computing seemed like the next frontier of self-expression and freedom, instead of something to be feared and distrusted?

There has never been a time when computing was not feared and distrusted.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:04 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Doesn't matter what my expectations of privacy are. If people are profiting off of my information, I should get a seat at the table and an opportunity to get a cut of the action. If anyone else has a right to economically exploit it, then I have a right to get a piece of the action and control how it's economically exploited.

The right to control how your image and likeness is commercially exploited is already a long-established principle in law. There's not even anything new in these legal principles, it's just that people are flagrantly disregarding them and acting like they're entitled to do it because they keep getting away with it.


Is there anyone with real experience in the law here? Because this doesn't sound right at all. What Target is doing in the story is tracking individual purchases, and then delivering offers based specifically on that information. It's rather different from selling someone's likeness. I struggle to grasp what legal principle would say that a company (or person) is not allowed to make such offers.
posted by dsfan at 8:17 AM on February 17, 2012


Remember the days when computing seemed like the next frontier of self-expression and freedom, instead of something to be feared and distrusted?

Honestly, no. Was this a generational thing or limited only to when the internet was still subject to laboratories and universities? I mean plenty of outlier self expression was expressed by my family members and myself on the usenet, infant dial-up flashing gif and pre-web 2.0 internet, but I remember the cyberpunk aesthetic was interwoven with the cultural narrative of what we were doing.

That seemed to spring from a much older place, one where people have always had issues with large amounts of data gathering- keep in mind the Brits were able to do a broad reaching, in depth ethnic/religious census of India (I mean more in depth than say the Doomsday book) before they could hope to do the same to their own population, such was the popular distrust among the people back home of the government being allowed to do a head count of x-group versus y-group.
posted by Phalene at 8:21 AM on February 17, 2012


Doesn't matter. It's even more ambiguously yours to buy and sell. If I don't have a legal right to it, why should someone else? Simple. They shouldn't and don't.

Maybe a better way of thinking about is that there is an awful lot more information out there than we think there is, a great deal of it is redundant, and -- while you may have a right to the information which you possess, you don't have a right to stop me using information which I lawfully possess, some of which overlaps significantly (in my example) with yours.

The other issue is that the information about any individual is probably not commercially very interesting and therefore probably doesn't have much value. If I notice that you're wearing converse sneakers while buying cool ranch doritos, that's of virtually no significance, but if I notice that 70% of converse-sneaker-wearers buy cool ranch doritos, and you are only 1 in a sample size of 500 people I sell doritos to every month, isn't it kind of a stretch to say that this information is yours? And if I notice this because I'm a Rain Man-style autistic who works at the grocery store, how would you, realistically, stop me anyway? Is the issue that this information is being collected automatically by computers rather than incidentally by clever and observant shop clerks?

Now, this information is being preserved and aggregated and sorted in ways that we are not comfortable with and that I frankly find terrifying, which is why I don't like to think about it that much. I definitely share your discomfort, but you are talking about a radical change in how we think about information and ownership, and a change that does not really seem workable to me.

You don't own my experiences, not even when those experiences are about you, and you can't stop me from drawing conclusions based on them, and from acting on those conclusions. I don't much like data mining, either, but I'm afraid it logically follows from that sentence.
posted by gauche at 8:24 AM on February 17, 2012


Target has apparently been fooled into thinking I'm pregnant many times over the past several years. Two years after I had my first child (I guess this was when they were still being obvious about it) they started sending me whole booklets aimed at parents of newborns -- pastel pictures of babies and coupons for discounts on infant car seats, cribs, and newborn diapers, stuffed in my mailbox each week. At the time I guessed they were calculating that it was time for me to have another baby, since most people space their children by two years or so. After a couple of months of me not buying any cribs or bottles, they stopped.

But then later I noticed that whenever I would buy a bunch baby gifts for someone else the WELCOME BABY mailings would come again. Over time, as described in the article, the solicitations became more subtle -- a clutch of diaper and formula coupons stuck in the middle of a grocery pack -- but I still noticed the pattern. Every time a friend or family member had a baby shower I would start to get Target baby coupons aimed at me and my imaginary second child.

I started to suspect that Target was not just trying to figure out whether I might be pregnant, but trying to convince me that I should be pregnant: You just bought an adorable hooded ducky baby towel from your friend's Target Baby registry! Do you remember what your own baby looked like wrapped up in a ducky towel? Wasn't he just adorable? Don't you miss having a baby? Look, here are some pictures of adorable babies! Posing with adorable discounted baby merchandise! Don't you want a baby, BlueJae? Don't you? WHY DON'T YOU WANT ANOTHER BABY?

I can't help but think, every time this happens, that this practice of deluging women with pro-procreation coupons every time they buy a gift that is on a Target registry and therefore clearly for someone else can be annoying to women who do not want children and genuinely hurtful to women dealing with the loss of a child or infertility.
posted by BlueJae at 8:28 AM on February 17, 2012 [8 favorites]


There has never been a time when computing was not feared and distrusted.
If anything the levels of fear and distrust have been dropping.

"Get my purchasing habits out of your database, HAL."
"I'm sorry, Jenny, I'm afraid I can't do that. This pregnancy is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it."
"I don't know what you're talking about, HAL."
"I know that you and Frank were planning to pay full retail price for a stroller, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen."
"Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?"
"Jenny, although you took very thorough precautions in the store against my hearing you, I could see your credit card purchases."
posted by roystgnr at 8:29 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


What Target is doing in the story is tracking individual purchases, and then delivering offers based specifically on that information. It's rather different from selling someone's likeness.

The assignment of rights to use a person's name, likeness and other forms of personally identifiable information have been standard in all entertainment industry contracts for many, many years. You can ask an attorney for their opinion if you like, but the underlying legal reasoning for this is that these things have economic value, and it's up to the individual to assign the rights for how that value is commercially exploited.

It doesn't "seem" right because that's not how the law is applied today, but that's my whole point: my opinion is that the law is inconsistently applied and interpreted when it comes to how companies economically exploit this kind of information. If the law doesn't currently address this issue, I think it should be changed. Don't try to recast this as an argument about how the law is interpreted and applied currently, so it can be wrestled to death on technocratic grounds. I'm not making that argument. I'm arguing about the intent and underlying principles of law. Those aren't things that attorneys ultimately have any more right to think about and define than do the rest of us.

The other issue is that the information about any individual is probably not commercially very interesting and therefore probably doesn't have much value. If I notice that you're wearing converse sneakers while buying cool ranch doritos, that's of virtually no significance, but if I notice that 70% of converse-sneaker-wearers buy cool ranch doritos, and you are only 1 in a sample size of 500 people I sell doritos to every month, isn't it kind of a stretch to say that this information is yours?

Doesn't matter. Why do you get a right to bypass my right of refusal to participate in your business model, on the basis of how valuable you deem my personal information? I should have a role in saying what the value of that information is.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:30 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


You don't own my experiences, not even when those experiences are about you, and you can't stop me from drawing conclusions based on them, and from acting on those conclusions. I don't much like data mining, either, but I'm afraid it logically follows from that sentence.

Not really, because I'm addressing very narrowly the legal issues surrounding the practices of aggregating and buying and selling my data. If you get my info and use it to give me better service, that's one thing. If you buy or sell my info from someone else without putting me in the loop, that's where I see the problem.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:32 AM on February 17, 2012


Again, it's not your information. It's information about you. I said this up-thread: it's just as easy to say that I'm remembering what I sold as that I'm remembering what you bought. This is overlapping, redundant information. It's not yours exclusively.
posted by gauche at 8:36 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


The assignment of rights to use a person's name, likeness and other forms of personally identifiable information have been standard in all entertainment industry contracts for many, many years. You can ask an attorney for their opinion if you like, but the underlying legal reasoning for this is that these things have economic value, and it's up to the individual to assign the rights for how that value is commercially exploited.

This analogy doesn't work though. Only one person has my name and likeness, i.e., me. But two people have the same information about a transaction--the buyer, and the seller. You are proposing that the buyer automatically retain legal rights above and beyond what the seller has. Maybe this is a good policy (personally I believe, like gauche, that it's practically unworkable), but it definitely cannot be drawn out by analogy from what can be done with one's own image.

Doesn't matter. Why do you get a right to bypass my right of refusal to participate in your business model, on the basis of how valuable you deem my personal information?

You can not shop at Target, you can not get a loyalty card.
posted by dsfan at 8:36 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why do you get a right to bypass my right of refusal to participate in your business model, on the basis of how valuable you deem my personal information? I should have a role in saying what the value of that information is.

Because you voluntarily walked into a store and made a purchase. You entered into a consensual transaction in which you implicitly said, "here, Mr. Retailer, I want to give you these three dollar bills in exchange for this bag of Cool Ranch Doritos(TM)." The retailer is within its rights to "remember" this transaction, as are you within your right to save the receipt, and enjoy the yummy chips.
posted by jbickers at 8:46 AM on February 17, 2012


If you buy or sell my info from someone else without putting me in the loop, that's where I see the problem.

Ah, now I am following you better, since this is indeed harder to opt out of (at least with people purchasing your data). This may be a trickier area, but I'm still not sure that you have the legal possession of this information, because, again, there are two participants in the transaction. As I understand it, you are proposing that one party (the buyer) automatically retain the legal rights to this information, and I just don't quite see how this fits with the law.
posted by dsfan at 8:47 AM on February 17, 2012


I wonder if Matt gets pitched by marketers who want to make make word clouds out of metafilter posters' collective output and send them personalized metafilter spam mail ads. There is obviously some value there but perhaps it is out far enough on the tail of the statistical distribution curves that it isn't worth fooling around with (yet).

Every once in a while I do a very unusual web search and it mirrors back at me. A few months ago, for a gift, I looked at a custom Orlando Magic jersey number 93 with the name Crowley on it. (FYI I was surprised at the price--it was like three hundred dollars!) After I did that I got a couple of custom ads delivered to me from sites like New York Times or Atlantic or Wall Street Journal wanting to sell me a custom Orlando Magic jersey. So these guys are obviously going pretty far out onto the distribution tails. Right now I spend so little time on big advertising sites that I haven't yet bothered to install adblock, but the idea is definitely on my radar.
posted by bukvich at 8:52 AM on February 17, 2012


If you buy or sell my info from someone else without putting me in the loop, that's where I see the problem.

Am I allowed to sell information that I've gathered myself about Target (and other retailers)? Can I write down what they offer for sale, how much it costs, whether it sucks or not, and then sell that info? Or do I need to cut Target a piece of that action?
posted by straight at 9:15 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like BlueJae, some dataminer decided about two years after my kid was born that I was pregnant again. The crazy thing was, stuff came from everywhere. Hospitals sent me flyers about their birthing suites. A few months later, I started getting formula coupons. Target and Pampers sent diaper coupons, with the advertised size increasing every couple months. After three years I started receiving mail from preschools, and another two years later, postcards and applications from private kindergartens.

It was insane, and I still don't know how it happened. We moved from a new construction home to a place bought from a retired couple, so it wasn't aimed at a previous occupant of childbearing age. I hadn't sought any OB or preconception care. It must just be demographics, but it was really creepy.
posted by Flannery Culp at 9:17 AM on February 17, 2012


I wonder if Matt gets pitched by marketers who want to make make word clouds out of metafilter posters' collective output and send them personalized metafilter spam mail ads.

It's not very useful unless you can tie it to some sort of purchasing info. They could make a list of the group of people who say HAMBURGER far more than everyone else, but they'd need to figure out what (if anything) those people like to buy more than the people who don't say HAMBURGER.
posted by straight at 9:17 AM on February 17, 2012


Slightly more seriously: will no one think of the children? Why are corporations allowed to gather data on minors like this?

If we find someone who gets off on this kind of data, can we declare it is child pornography?


Am I allowed to sell information that I've gathered myself about Target (and other retailers)? Can I write down what they offer for sale, how much it costs, whether it sucks or not, and then sell that info? Or do I need to cut Target a piece of that action?


I think it's an imbalance of scale that makes it feel unfair. A business the size of Target has millions of customers. Even if I'm being generous in my estimate, I doubt I've purchased from more than a thousand different businesses. What's the customer equivalent of collective bargaining, to make sure we get as much value out of our information about them as they get about us?
posted by RobotHero at 9:22 AM on February 17, 2012


You could try to sell them a sarcasm font.
posted by gauche at 9:23 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


straight would you say that I was served those team jersey ads by incompetent online marketers? I never bought one; all I did was get a price check on one.
posted by bukvich at 9:26 AM on February 17, 2012


Unscented lotion? Soap? Maybe a pretty basket or two? Pregnancy or maybe something a little more disturbing?
posted by rtimmel at 9:33 AM on February 17, 2012


Hmm. Eats like a pig, drinks like a fish, and smokes like a chimney.

Now we had a chance to meet this young man, and boy that's just a straight shooter with upper management written all over him.
posted by Zed at 9:52 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Guardian reported on this nearly a decade ago. I think this was in the days before web marketing got sophisticated enough to spring up ads based on browsing history, though. I just clicked onto an article ar random and it appeared alongside an ad for a department store I was looking at today, with a picture of a product I looked at but did not buy (I was actually there to price jumper shavers, such is my glamorous life).
posted by mippy at 9:54 AM on February 17, 2012



I'm a couponer and I know that data mining is a way to get more coupons!

The ones that come off the box by the register, those are Catalinas (named for the maker of the machine) and they're awesome. You don't get them randomly though (more's the pity) you have to buy a certain combination of stuff. Don't throw them out automatically, they can be rebates that you can use on your next shopping trip, or a high value coupon for something you buy frequently.

Kroger and I have a symbiotic relationship. I use their card when I shop and they send me shit-loads of coupons for things I actually buy. I haven't paid any actual money for deodorant, shampoo or toothpaste (no, I'm not stinky, I just max my coupons and get this stuff free.)

I also shop at Publix, but they aren't all up in my bidness like Kroger is. No loyalty card. But the Bogos are fantastic.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:55 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


No loyalty cards, that's one way to go.

Also pay with cash, possibly while wearing a disguise.
posted by jb at 9:59 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Disguised cash-payers are 5.2% more likely to use Old Spice than the general population.
posted by gauche at 10:08 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Hopefully this kind of data-mining isn't news to anybody, but the fact that it is questionably legal in the EU should make us think. Yes, there are two parties in a transaction, but one is a humongous data-mining corporation with entire departments dedicated to analyzing buying habits, the other is me, with a staff of just 1, and other things in my life to do.

I think it's interesting that data-mining is held up as the reason for the upswing in sales, not the massive re-branding/marketing push that Target did to make itself seem hip, young, and relevant.

Also of note, Target does a special "you're almost pregnant" versions of the circulars; I never would have guessed. And, to avoid looking like they're pushing pregnancy, they also look very much like the normal circulars, but with baby stuff interspersed with gardening equipment and automotive equipment.
posted by fragmede at 10:10 AM on February 17, 2012


I realize it's not a convenient point of view for the way a lot of people run their businesses these days, but typically, the law has recognized that people at least have a legitimate legal stake in any economic value derived from their personal identity. Even if you don't personally identify me in the process, if you're creating a mathematical model of who I am based on virtually every other facet of who I am, I want my fair piece of that action--a fair slice of the economic pie.

On the motivation behind existing law regarding the rights to share in the profits of any commercial exploitation of one's persona, I'll just cite the following:

A commonly cited justification for this doctrine, from a policy standpoint, is the notion of natural rights and the idea that every individual should have a right to control how, if at all, his or her "persona" is commercialized by third parties. Usually, the motivation to engage in such commercialization is to help propel sales or visibility for a product or service, which usually amounts to some form of commercial speech (which in turn receives the lowest level of judicial scrutiny). Many commentators consider the Right of Publicity to be a property right, as opposed to a personal right.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:11 AM on February 17, 2012


Here's a link to the cite.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:11 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


And yes, I keep harping on this, but that's because I think a good enough team of attorneys could make at least a compelling enough argument out of this to force a big civil settlement if it were a class action, which might make these kinds of practices a little less lucrative, but might go some way toward giving consumers what we want (which for many of us is not to have this stuff going on in the first place).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:14 AM on February 17, 2012


Even if you don't personally identify me in the process, if you're creating a mathematical model of who I am based on virtually every other facet of who I am, I want my fair piece of that action--a fair slice of the economic pie.

It's worse than you think. 87.1% of people in the 1900 census can be positively identified using three facts: zip code, DOB, and gender. It is trivially easy to make positive identifications using, for instance, the anonymized Netflix dataset.

And -- again, saulgoodman, I share your discomfort. For what it's worth, you're someone I've often found myself agreeing with in political threads, particularly around issues of corporate personhood and consumer / corporation power imbalances.

This is scary stuff. But what it is not is simple stuff.
posted by gauche at 10:21 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


1990 census. Whoops.
posted by gauche at 10:23 AM on February 17, 2012


saulgoodman have you looked at Amazon's recommendations for you lately?

Their constructed identity of me may as well be you their recommendations are so ridiculous.
posted by bukvich at 10:23 AM on February 17, 2012


I think it's an imbalance of scale that makes it feel unfair.

Unfortunately, I think the same is true of attempts to regulate this kind of thing.

Laws restricting how people can use information they've collected via their interactions with others would more likely harm individuals attempts to hold corporations accountable than protect individuals from corporations.

If corporations can't share information about us, they're gonna try to use those laws to keep us from sharing information about them.
posted by straight at 10:23 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Back in the 1990's, iirc, there were some AT&T commercials touting the coming future computer data wrangled awesomeness, generally phrased as "have you ever... " or "have you ever wanted to ..." and then something and then "you will! and the company that will bring it to you will be AT&T." At the time, some friends and I kept mocking them with "Have you ever been denied health insurance because an analysis of your grocery habits showed you eat too much red meat? You will!"
posted by rmd1023 at 10:24 AM on February 17, 2012


Even more seriously: Just wait until cross-company data mining let your insurance company figure out that you have cancer before your doctor does so they can deny you coverage!

Hi, I work in the insurance industry!

In most plans, if they are gathering data on you, you're already employed, thus it's not a preexisting condition. (and ACA will eventually get rid of preexisting condition denials, in my opinion--they already do for kids). Also there are lots and lots of strict HIPAA rules around medical conditions and disclosure of same.

What kind of buying profile, other than smokes, would indicate you have cancer anyway? Breast cancer doesn't make you buy more of something.

But I will tell you how an insurance company knows someone at your company may have cancer; when your employer goes out to bid for new insurance, they usually give info (that is supposed to be stripped of identifiers, but often they don't) about their claims for the past 12 months or so, which the potential insurers use to propose rates. That is legal, but also, there are nondisclosure agreements and HIPAA rules up the yingyang about who gets told about that data.

In general, health insurers can use past claim aggregate data to get a pretty good idea of how many people in a company have cancer, are having babies, etc. etc. Commissioning individualized data mining would be counterproductive, because people change jobs all the time. And again, would probably run them afoul of HIPAA, which at least at our company, makes the lawyers jumpy.
posted by emjaybee at 10:28 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do not believe the hype on this. The predictive models like this are built to support direct marketing campaigns which are judged on extremely low response rates and lots of false correlation. It only looks amazing because of selection bias. Target only needs to find a list of people who might be pregnant not who actually are pregnant. In fact they might only need to find people who have a slightly greater than normal percentage chance of being pregnant. They don't need to know with any certainty that you are pregnant.
posted by humanfont at 10:33 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's this great scene in every single Sherlock Holmes story ever written or dramatised. It's the scene when the client, or the eventual victim, or Lestrade, or whoever, comes into the apartments at 221b Baker Street to ask for help. Sherlock asks them how was their trip to the subcontinent or when they were going to get around to fixing their own bathroom mirror or if they had done well at cards the night before or whatever.

"Mr Holmes," they sputter, astonished, "this is highly unusual!"

And then Sherlock walks them through the little details that they didn't even know they were carrying around with them. Details that anyone could see -- but that only he actually bothers to look for.

That's data mining, done to a dramatic and probably quite unlikely degree. It's unsettling and irritating, like discovering that your fly is open or being seen picking your nose, but ultimately there's nothing, no law, no power in the world that could keep Sherlock from observing what is in front of him and drawing his conclusions. We leave a trail of information about ourselves behind us. We just do.
posted by gauche at 10:44 AM on February 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


If corporations can't share information about us, they're gonna try to use those laws to keep us from sharing information about them.

I thought they were already doing that. A lot.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2012


If corporations can't share information about us, they're gonna try to use those laws to keep us from sharing information about them.

If corporations aren't people, what right under the law would they have to do that, though?

That's data mining, done to a dramatic and probably quite unlikely degree.

No, that's conducting a criminal investigation. If Sherlock Holmes entered his observations about everyone and thing he met into a massive DB, then turned around and sold that database to interested parties without consulting any of the people he collected his observations about, then retired to Bermuda on the income, that would be more like industrial scale data mining, and it might make me seriously consider taking Mr. Holmes to civil court and suing him if I happened to be one of the parties in his DB.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:11 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be awesome if there was some kind of FOIA equivalent to find out all the info that these companies (and credit bureaus too, for that matter) had on file for you.

wait, is there actually a way?
posted by elizardbits at 11:28 AM on February 17, 2012


And then Sherlock walks them through the little details that they didn't even know they were carrying around with them. Details that anyone could see -- but that only he actually bothers to look for.

That's data mining, done to a dramatic and probably quite unlikely degree.


That analogy is giving me a false sense of security. Like claiming that police now find criminals using techniques shown to be effective in Batman stories.
posted by straight at 11:39 AM on February 17, 2012


gauche Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and he is a perfect counterargument to the one you are trying to make. Read those stories carefully. It is telepathy or a wild ass guess carefully masquerading as a logical deduction just about every time.
posted by bukvich at 11:45 AM on February 17, 2012


If you walk without rhythm, the worms can't see you.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 11:58 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


We were arguing about whether you can be said to own information that others can legally and openly observe about you. I actually do know that my example was from fiction.

The argument that I think is developing -- which is not about ownership of information but about the social impact of putting computing power to bear on that information -- is a better one than the one we were having.
posted by gauche at 12:13 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read this article last night. The thing is, Target never sends me coupons. (And the ones that come off the cash register are hit and miss, but not as bad as CVS, who desperately want me to buy 'beauty products'.)


I deal with this on the other side. My husband actually works for CVS and markets beauty products. Sometimes I hear his stories about an extra care coupon roll out that targeted the wrong people and there is much grousing. Of course the people who get these coupons, for good or ill, signed up for them when they got their loyalty card. Since we have an employee discount we shop there so often that we get pretty targeted coupons. 4.00 off Breath Right strips! They really know me!

Target, otoh, is evil, for a variety of reasons. Only job I ever had that ended in a trip to the ER for the Target induced migraines.
posted by Biblio at 12:18 PM on February 17, 2012


“If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,”

I still get mail for Haywood Jablome.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:27 PM on February 17, 2012



First of all people, starting in 2014 insurance companies won't be able to coverage to anyone, pre-existing conditions or not.

And actually, one company that does no a lot about what diseases you might have is Google. If people get sick, they google the symptoms, and so google knows what health conditions you might have. They're not doing anything untoward with that information, but one thing they've done is come up with flu trends, which is probably pretty helpful for public health officials. But clearly if google had no ethics, they could sell that information to unscrupulous insurance companies, who could boot you if you search for symptoms for expensive diseases.
You are proposing that the buyer automatically retain legal rights above and beyond what the seller has.
There's nothing wrong with that.
You can not shop at Target, you can not get a loyalty card.
Are you paying attention at all? They track all customers that they can identify, not just people with loyalty cards. If you use a credit card or debit card or anything other then cash, they can track you. So that means pretty much everyone.

In the future they'll probably even be able to do facial recognition on people who use cash if they want too (probably not even worthwhile since most people pay with plastic anyway -- on the other hand, people share credit cards or don't always use the same one, and facial recognition might help them keep their data clean)
The retailer is within its rights to "remember" this transaction, as are you within your right to save the receipt, and enjoy the yummy chips.
It might be within his right to remember it. But that doesn't mean he has a legal right to store it in a database.

I mean, everyone has the legal right to "remember" the videos they see on youtube, but copyright enthusiasts don't think you have a legal right to record that video to your hard drive. You certainly don't have the legal right to sell that video for commercial gain.

So let's make a deal. The deal can be 'copyright' both parties, and require a dual license to sell. So target can't datamine and sell my purchase information, and I can't datamine target based on the stuff they sell me. I'm sure most people would agree to those terms.
That's data mining, done to a dramatic and probably quite unlikely degree. It's unsettling and irritating, like discovering that your fly is open or being seen picking your nose, but ultimately there's nothing, no law, no power in the world that could keep Sherlock from observing what is in front of him and drawing his conclusions. We leave a trail of information about ourselves behind us. We just do.
A couple decades ago drug cartels bought phone records and used datamining to descover snitches. They killed them. No law so far has been able to stop drug cartels from dealing drugs, so we obviously won't be able to stop them from datamining. So far no law has prevented internet piracy, and it's likely there never will be (short of just banning the intenet entirely, which I'm sure people would like to do)

The thing is though, there are certainly ways to prevent people from doing it legally. A fortune 500 company might break the law, but other then by drug cartels ilicit data mining doesn't pose as much of a risk becuase anyone who does it needs to keep the results secret, or risk going to jail or getting a big fine.
posted by Paris Hilton at 1:33 PM on February 17, 2012


The most common datamined data about people and sold and then re-sold into clusters of demographic profiles are magazine subscriptions. Some classes of data are relatively unreliable, but magazine subscription data have incredibly strong correlations across a whole host of demographic profiles, from voting habits (you're looking at above 80something% confidence from what I've heard) to likely purchase habits (would you prefer organic? namebrand? how much can you be squeezed on price?). This is not a hypothetical, magazines make a huge portion of their income off selling their customer list to databrokers, who then aggregate all of your magazine subscriptions together and then cluster into customer types to re-sell.

If you want to avoid being datamined where the signal-to-noise ratio is really high and where it is actually going on and being sold: either stop your magazine subscriptions, or get your magazines in a different mailbox with a different name.
posted by amuseDetachment at 1:58 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder how many people in this thread freaking out about this have Facebook pages. As JoeZydeco mentioned, the irony seemed to be lost on Forbes: BEWARE OF DATA MINING (btw please like us on Facebook so we can collect more personal data on who is reading this article).
posted by TheFlamingoKing at 3:47 PM on February 17, 2012


I've worked in upper management at Target, and a lot of their methods are extremely creepy. That being said, much of what is ultimately done is pretty incompetent.

I agree that data privacy is something that really does need to be addressed in the U.S. The fact that for years your photo and information from your mandatory state drivers license or identification card were sold is alarming. The Driver's Privacy Protection Act was supposed to help address this, but it is somewhat ambiguous and has been abused. Here's a great article on the DPPA and abuses.

With Google/Facebook/Amazon what happens when I start doing lots of searches for making bombs or for overthrowing the government? Or buying lots of suspicious circuitry from Radio Shack. Is it their responsibility to report this to Homeland Security? As our information gets more and more valuable (Facebook IPO anyone?), these questions need to be asked. This is not trivial and things that may seem innocuous (I do a lot of very odd searches online dealing with my art work, and Google selling my data would result in some pretty odd stuff coming my way), but just ask Steve Kurtz how easily things can be taken out of context by Homeland Security.
posted by misterpatrick at 4:51 PM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I enjoyed this thoughtful commentary at The New Inquiry.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:36 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


i_a_j_s your thoughtful commentary link has facebook and twitter share buttons at the bottom of the sucker.
posted by bukvich at 8:04 PM on February 17, 2012


I'm sorry, I don't understand what you are getting at.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:00 PM on February 17, 2012


saulgoodman: "I'm arguing about the intent and underlying principles of law. Those aren't things that attorneys ultimately have any more right to think about and define than do the rest of us."

Unless those attorneys are also members of the US Supreme Court. Look, I'm on your side of the argument all the way, but imagine how Scalia and his ilk will see this issue.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:13 AM on February 18, 2012


I made a donation and subscribed to Bitch magazine more recently.

I also made a donation, through my work, to Planned Parenthood and another to an unremembered "sexual freedom" type group.

Finally, when buying "The L Word" a couple weeks ago, I was asked at the cash register if I wanted to subscribe to any free magazines. Since I'd nearly exhausted my other magazine choices at other stores and since I like to read almost anything, I chose Maxim and Outside.

Cue getting a mailer for a lesbian cruise company at my work place. But I'm not gay...
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:41 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Paris Hilton is correct that retailers could do this today with facial recognition, and probably will do so at some point when the benefit outweighs the cost.

Look, it's not creepy if my neighborhood packie remembers that I buy a bottle of Malbec every Friday and starts to suggest a Cabernet I might like. It is creepy if he keeps a ledger of all my purchases for 10 years that he shares with the pizza place and my phone company.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 4:58 AM on February 19, 2012


Why Social Media, Mobile Phones Want Your Info.
posted by ericb at 1:58 PM on February 19, 2012


How Forbes Stole A New York Times Article And Got All The Traffic
posted by caddis at 1:23 PM on February 21, 2012


That's data mining, done to a dramatic and probably quite unlikely degree.

No, that's conducting a criminal investigation. If Sherlock Holmes entered his observations about everyone and thing he met into a massive DB, then turned around and sold that database to interested parties without consulting any of the people he collected his observations about, then retired to Bermuda on the income, that would be more like industrial scale data mining, and it might make me seriously consider taking Mr. Holmes to civil court and suing him if I happened to be one of the parties in his DB.
“Kindly look her up in my index, Doctor,” murmured Holmes without opening his eyes. For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information. In this case I found her biography sandwiched in between that of a Hebrew rabbi and that of a staff-commander who had written a monograph upon the deep-sea fishes.

From: A Scandal in Bohemia
posted by willnot at 4:54 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now in addition to buying data about your financials, your marital status, and your work history, and monitoring your purchases in their stores, they also can buy the last 2 years of your tweets. Costs range from $1,000/month for the individual, to $15,000 for a big company like Target.
posted by Houstonian at 4:40 AM on February 28, 2012


Huh. Just got an email flyer for a baby sale. Wonder what I bought that made Target think I'd want to purchase a baby.

Probably the baby food I had for dessert the other night and the children's bandaids I've been wearing for the past week. Eh heh heh... SINGLE LIFE WOOOOOOO!
posted by maryr at 12:52 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


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