I am a kitchen manager for a house on campus, and almost every week I head over to Safeway to buy my residents various foodstuffs. This Safeway run is relatively minor, often just to purchase the few products that Costco does not provide- sometimes I will get Bagel Bites, sometimes Triscuits, but every time I will pick up a few boxes of tea. I have a Safeway Club Card, which not only saves me money but gives me a coupon after almost every purchase. Almost invariably, my coupons are for tea.
A couple months ago, I started ramping up my Google searches for anything related to skiing. As an avid skier, I check weather reports, watch YouTube videos of professional skiers, and occasionally scan the online marketplace for gear. Starting two weeks ago, I noticed that the number of ski-related advertisements I was getting skyrocketed. On websites completely unrelated to skiing—the Daily website, for instance—I was being told about some new ski boot or the amount of snow Mt. Bachelor has received this season.
It is no secret that data on users is collected from social networking profiles, online searches, credit cards or rewards cards, magazine subscriptions, and more. Often, this data is used for profit, whether it is leveraged by the collector or sold to other companies. What these firms do with the data is generally kept secret, although you can bet that many of the coupons you receive and advertisements you see online can be traced in some way back to your consumption history.
Many people expound on the benefits of data collection; in my case, I certainly would rather get coupons for tea than dish soap, and I would rather see ads for ski resorts than tax services. Others try to reason away the costs of privacy loss by stating that “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.”
Yet we never know when we may want to keep certain information private. There is the case of how Target knew a teenager in Minnesota was pregnant before her family did; this teenager likely purchased some combination of supplements, lotions, and other products that pregnant women buy. As a result, Target sent her a coupon book filled with coupons for diapers, formula, and other baby items. Her father happened upon this coupon book and, after questioning his daughter, learned she was pregnant. In this case, not only was information that many would consider private discovered and exploited by profit-seeking third parties, but it was shared prematurely to those close to the user. Who knows when you may be exposed for something that, while not illegal or immoral, you would rather have kept private?
It is not hard to imagine a future where insurance companies are armed with knowledge of an individual’s consumption habits—how many cigarettes or hamburgers he buys a week, for instance—and can leverage this information to their advantage (your disadvantage). Perhaps this is already occurring. Arkansas-based Acxiom Corporation has detailed profiles—up to about 1500 data points—for roughly two-thirds of the US population and analyzes over 50 trillion data transactions per year. Acxiom then processes this information, placing users into one of 70 consumer types, and sells its findings to interested corporations- in 2012, Acxiom had a revenue of 1.2 billion dollars.
Are we powerless to respond to this? For five dollars and a few week’s waiting time, we can see our personal files that Acxiom keeps on store; we can also opt out of their data pool entirely, although this process requires providing them with more information. Another increasingly popular option is to make purchases, especially sensitive ones, using cash.
Perhaps government can play a role. Although many associate “Big Brother” with a government entity, in this case the corporate sector is the enemy and government could become our ally; Congress passed the Fair Credit Report Act, for instance, which allowed consumers to view their credit reports for free. Perhaps they could require corporations like Acxiom to share their information with consumers more readily or can regulate what information can be collected and acted upon. If the data collection sector remains largely unregulated and out of the public consciousness, there is no telling what’s next.
Think someone is watching you? Email Adam at email@example.com.