Facebook is storing your private data for unknown reasons. Google's keeping a record of what kinds of websites you're visiting. Whatever smartphone you have has built-in GPS technology that can be used to trace your current location. To live in the modern world is to accept your every movement is being tracked. The whole thing's easy to put out of your mind. That is, until the New York Times publishes a creepy article about consumer statisticians.

The piece is a profile of Andrew Pole, statistician for the ubiquitous Target retail chain, and begins with a Big Brother-esque question asked by one of his colleagues: "If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?"

From there it goes through the process that Target — and, presumably, most other big chains — use to collect information about each consumer as soon as they walk through the door:

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.”

It's easy to think of the positives that come with this kind of extreme direct marketing — say, whenever one of those coupons gets spit out at the grocery store for the particular brand of food you're buying. But the whole thing is just a creepy reminder of how little privacy we truly have anymore.

Commentarium (7 Comments)

Feb 21 12 - 8:27pm
guess what

This article reads like my mother who's too afraid to use her credit card on amazon.

Companies are collecting data on everything related to our purchases, be it personal information, click tracking, or how long we spend on particular websites. It's been happening and it won't stop. Get over it.

Similar to the PATRIOT act, everyone gets all frazzled when they hear someone is paying attention to the minute details of their every day lives. Who cares? What are you doing that is so secretive that would ruin you if it were discovered? We need to get over our narcissism of believing that what we buy or what we see on the internet is somehow going to expose us or is invasive of our privacy. No one's publishing your diary, they're just analyzing your purchasing habits.

And when amazon suggests a product that you might like, are you up in arms because amazon used some of your previous purchases as data to introduce you to products that you would probably want, is THAT an invasion of privacy?

Feb 24 12 - 12:17pm

You need to read Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punishment" at least the third chapter if you can't make it through the whole book and you might want to check out a few history books particularly upon the culture and policies of surveillance that made the holocaust possible. The dismissal of surveillance ignores the implications of such data collecting. These collective pieces of information about individuals are combined to create predictive profiles of entire group behavior and congregations. This information can be used to determine what areas of people vote a certain way and therefore increase the number of counter political ads & PR ads in that area, divide their voting districts in ways that make their collective votes inconsequential, increase police presence in certain areas based on racial profiling, which can be deduced from purchasing habits. This information is not simply to recommend products via coupons or amazon, it is used to marginalize and manipulate the population as a whole in ways that diminish its ability to act as group towards a common goal. Never underestimate nor forget that surveillance is always the first and most indispensable tool of a hierarchy to control a population. It is the ways in which you do not see this data being used that unravels the fabric of democracy into a mere illusion.

Feb 21 12 - 9:58pm

So it's like my grocery store shopper's card, sans card? Ok.

Feb 21 12 - 10:27pm

Pay cash.

Feb 22 12 - 8:37am
gd anon

That's not creepy at all, really. That, like listening to Republicans talk about how the country has gone downhill in the last four years and was perfect before that, is the price I pay for living in 2012.
Also, I guess for shopping.

Feb 22 12 - 1:27pm

Redux of marketing and consumer research - circa forever. The real difference is that it was a hell of a lot more time consuming and difficult twenty years ago.

Feb 22 12 - 3:49pm
Phantom 309

I worry less about this than the Feds being in charge of my medical info.