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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.