Why Privacy Matters

Creepy Target Dog is watching you

(Craig Campbell)– “Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.” As a budding math major looking to justify my academic choices, I was hooked this line by Charles Duhigg line in a recent New York Times Magazine article. He writes about how retail companies use analysis of disparate data sources to “know what you want before you do.”

The story centers around Andrew Pole, a statistician hired by Target in 2002, who has “been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life.” His job is to research consumer habits, how they’re formed, and how corporations can exploit them for profit maximization. (After his ideas were implemented across the company, Target’s revenue rose from $44 billion to $67 billion.) Behavioral scientists have long agreed that once habits are formed – whether one’s buying patterns, daily routines, diet, social habits – they’re difficult to change. AKA, why diets don’t usually work. But these patterns certainly not permanent; Duhigg writes:

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments – the moment, really – is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way… “We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years…”

You may not realize it, but every time you make a purchase at Target, or any other store, the transaction is archived in the vault of data they’ve been keeping on you, your coupons, your credit cards, your phone calls to customer service, and your buying habits for years. (For the more paranoid among us, there’s really something to be said for using cash.) And with that much information, it’s not hard to use public records to gather your age, “how long it takes you to drive to the store, estimated salary,” other family information; they can even buy information on your ethnicity, bank history, and educational background… the list goes on, and on. Of course, the exogenous flow of your personal information isn’t limited walls of the shopping mall. Remember that barrage of college letters you got your junior/senior year of high school? All those schools bought your information from College Board. Don’t you remember giving them permission?

Target Dog is watching you

“Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, customers are ‘vulnerable to intervention by marketers.’” And nothing makes a family more ‘vulnerable’ than the arrival of a baby. Using data that’s very legally available, Pole was able to run statistical programs to determine at what point in their pregnancies women buy specific products.

Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August… Pole applied his program to every regular female shopper in Target’s national database and soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant…

And so Pole used that data to send coupon books filled with cribs, diapers, pacifiers, baby lotion, and everything else a mother could possibly want to that entire list of women. And it wasn’t very successful; in fact, Target received a number of privacy complaints.

“With the pregnancy products, we learned that some women react badly,” [a Target executive] said, “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”

Let’s go back to those quotes and look at some of the language the Target officials used. “Vulnerable,” “spook,” “capture,” “spying,” our behavior as “up for grabs.” Are you okay with that? What does that say about any of our decisions, buying or otherwise?

This is my third post about privacy issues. Why do I suddenly care so much about it? I’ve never liked social media, but only in the past few months have I been so actively concerned about it. Maybe it’s because this introspective Panda doesn’t have himself quite figured out yet, and is a little disturbed by the notion that a big company might have already done it.

I’m considering applying to be a SMART scholar with the Department of Defense. It’s a math/science scholarship that awards tuition money in exchange for a number of years of employment with the DoD post-graduation in one of their many laboratories and military bases across the country. Besides completing an exhaustive application, students must submit a 125-page request for national security clearance. Any documented illegal activity, no matter how petty, and you’re done. The FAQ section explains that if an applicant’s parents were born outside of the United States, there’s a good chance he won’t be cleared.

I have nothing to hide from the government, really. I haven’t done anything I’m ashamed of. It’s the same way I’m not ashamed of what my nude body looks like – but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable being naked around people I don’t trust. Privacy is not the same as secrecy. Privacy is about personal agency. It’s this need to have some part of my identity that belongs to me only, that is my right and choice to share.

Maybe my issue is the fact that no one really cares. People assume when they log on to “trusted” websites, they’re completely safe – I mean, with 845 million active users, how could Facebook possibly be flawed. Clearly we’re all smart enough not to put our credit card information into some janky-looking site that has a sketchy return policy, etc, but just because these behemoth companies are BIG and SUCCESSFUL and LOOK PRETTY, doesn’t mean that they place our interests in front of theirs.

A quick search of “google’s privacy policy” on Google itself quickly indicates that journalists, legislators (thank goodness), and academics care enough to make a stink, but what about everyone else? Where are all those regular folk who cared about SOPA when Wikipedia was blacked-out? The Anonymous attacks on SOPA-supporting websites were awesome, representing the closest Information Age equivalent to masked-marauder/vigilante superhero justice. And the drama – watching Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom gettin’ taken out, what great fun! The events surrounding the legislation fostered necessary dialogue about privacy. What is a criminal’s right to privacy? Is an alleged child pornographer afforded the right to an undisclosed IP address? How much is a music pirate (arrrrrg) entitled to anonymity on the servers he uses to upload? Beneath all these somewhat superficially interesting dynamics, though, lies a more covert, insidious problem, one that those with “nothing to hide” don’t really seem to care about.

I dream of a Privacy Revolution someday. But that would require everyone sacrificing a little bit of what’s comfortable. It would mean giving up your public profile on Facebook, or forgoing the Walmart coupons that are specifically tailored for you. It’s just important that people at least notice what’s happening to them. I sometimes nurture this dark fantasy that Google, Apple, and Facebook will together form an effective Big Brother-like world hegemony, but I think my real-world concern is that I’m being reduced to a number, a marketing statistic, because I’m choosing to give away my public information. But I’m a person, not a number.

Isn’t that why we all came to Amherst? Because we wanted to come to a place where the student body is recognized as MORE than a sum of its parts. Because we’re different, because we don’t want to go to all the same parties. We very specifically chose to not to attend a school where everyone drinks the same beer, wears the same color every Saturday afternoon, etc, etc, etc. I’m an individual, with individual history. And so are you! An individual that no statistic, or collection of statistics, can ever fully explain.