Friday, February 24, 2012

A graphic example of how our privacy is being destroyed

It seems a major US supermarket chain has refined customer tracking to such an extent that it can now breach your privacy in entirely new ways. Forbes reports:

Every time you go shopping, you share intimate details about your consumption patterns with retailers. And many of those retailers are studying those details to figure out what you like, what you need, and which coupons are most likely to make you happy. Target, for example, has figured out how to data-mine its way into your womb, to figure out whether you have a baby on the way long before you need to start buying diapers.

Charles Duhigg outlines in the New York Times how Target tries to hook parents-to-be at that crucial moment before they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature. He talked to Target statistician Andrew Pole — before Target freaked out and cut off all communications — about the clues to a customer’s impending bundle of joy. Target assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources. Using that, Pole looked at historical buying data for all the ladies who had signed up for Target baby registries in the past.

. . .

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

. . .

So Target started sending coupons for baby items to customers according to their pregnancy scores. Duhigg shares an anecdote — so good that it sounds made up — that conveys how eerily accurate the targeting is. An angry man went into a Target outside of Minneapolis, demanding to talk to a manager:

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “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.”

. . .

I can promise you that Target is not the only store doing this. Those people chilled by stores’ tracking and profiling them may want to consider going the way of the common criminal — and paying for far more of their purchases in cash.

There's more at the link. I highly recommend reading the entire article.

This infuriates me - but then, I've been told I'm out of step with the times on more than one occasion. I long ago decided to make any purchases that I consider sensitive in cash, without a paper trail, in order to preserve what little privacy I have left!



Anonymous said...

thats why most places have my phone number in the system at 867-5309, and yes i do tell them my wifes name is Jenny!

Anonymous said...

Using cash to pay for "sensitive" is a good idea. The problem comes in in figuring out what is "sensitive".


trailbee said...

Many years ago Safeway began selling gasoline. In order to buy it at a discount, 3 cents a gal, I HAD to get their store card. I'm sure everyone is familiar with these cards. For years, I only used it to get my gas, but once in a while, when checking out, I did use it in the store.
I could not understand why everyone didn't get the reason be hind the card. It was to check up on our buying habits.
Thanks for the reminder. Gas, and only gas! Let them scratch their heads.

Roy said...

I don't worry too much about Target and other stores doing this. It is, after all, just an artifact of the increasing power of computers to crunch greater and greater amounts of data, and their efforts to use that power to enhance their marketing. The data they collect isn't really private data. It's data that is freely given to them during any completely voluntary transaction. Besides, as you have stated, any transaction you consider sensitive can be done on a cash basis, or you can refuse to do business with them at all.

Where the worry comes in is when the *government* gets its hands on this data, and uses it for nefarious purposes. With the increasing power of data processing, I don't know if there is a way to prevent this from happening, but it is something that we should be more aware of so that appropriate action can be taken to protect ourselves.

SiGraybeard said...

Some years ago - maybe 20 - there was a NOVA show on this subject; it opened with a young guy whose wife had just become pregnant getting maternity ads in the mail before they really told people. Somewhere around here I have a book that guy wrote.

Data collection 20 years ago was primitive compared to now. Grocery store check cashing cards served the same purpose as the credit cards today. The emphasis in this show was zip code demographics, which has been in use a long time. A zip code in an area with a young population and some products purchased keyed that software to send the maternity products ad to the author.

Will Brown said...

I particularly like the article author's unquestioned assumption that a cash purchase is a mark of criminality. Privacy issues aside, "convenience" is a variable consideration both as to person and circumstance. Any assertion to the contrary is an act of abuse IMO.

B said...

IF you buy from Amazon often, you'd be amazed at how accurate their prediction software can be. They recommend books that I already have, items that I purchase elsewhere, etc. Likely they have already figured out what I will purchase next.

I'd bet that they know nearly everything. Sadly, I didn't figure this out until too late.

Redneck said...

What Roy said. It's not an invasion of privacy until they share the information with someone else.

Anonymous said...

Cash is going away. The government doesn't like anonymity. I think Louisiana recently made it illegal to purchase used items with cash - does that mean yard sales are verboten now?

Bob said...

I think the information at the front of the article about cue/habit/reward was just as enlightening as the data mining stuff.