All the warnings in the world: Companies tracking us online

Daniel Stout2012-03-01T22:07:36+00:00

Target logoThe book Database Nation, which O’Reilly published in 2000, was an early call to arms for protections against the data mining of millions of citizens. Simson Garfinkel made the case that our privacy was being increasingly violated and manipulated by corporations and governments for a variety of reasons. In the post-9/11 world, his ideas spring even more to life. I used the book as a source for my master’s thesis in early 2001, which was about online privacy in regards to the practices of a sampling of newspaper websites.

The point is that people have been sounding the warning of the encroachments on our privacy for years. And in some cases there have been some significant intrusions. For the most part though much of it flies under the radar of our day-to-day lives. Charles Duhigg writes in How Companies Learn Your Secrets from The New York Times Magazine that Target and many other companies are uniquely identifying customers and using a variety of data-crunching methods to sell us more stuff. And because we’re all human, it has taken people with backgrounds in psychology and other fields such as math to put this all together.

Duhigg profiles a couple of companies including Target and also Proctor & Gamble. By using data about consumers, P&G was able to turn the weak launch of their Febreze product into a billion dollar business.  The key was understanding how habits work. Target and others have discovered that people get set in their purchasing habits. But there are inflection points in a person’s life that renders them more malleable. Maybe it’s a pregnancy, the purchase of a house, or even a divorce.

The Times article got notice because of a story that came from one of Target’s stores in Minnesota. Target has focused on pregnancies as a time to create new purchasing habits with their core customers. Target wants people to consider Target for more than, say, cleaning supplies. They want to be the go-to store for just about anything.

There was this man in Minnesota who walked into his local Target near Minneapolis and was upset. He was clutching some coupons that Target had sent to his teenage daughter. They were coupons for baby-related items. The store manager looked at the coupons and apologized although the corporate office sent the coupons.

The manager called the man a few days later to follow-up with him. This time the man apologized. When he had gone back home, he found out the truth: his daughter was pregnant. Target had figured out that the man’s daughter was pregnant before he did.

So it is well-known that our privacy is disappearing. Much of it is voluntary, such as on Facebook, but what of the ones sounding the alarms? In many ways, the tracking of consumers has greased the wheels of commerce. It is much easier for companies to find likely customers of their products. The demographic profiles that are available for sale contain extremely detailed information about our proclivities. To what end?

Alarmists are anticipating a massive transgression of our privacy — perhaps a rounding up of undesirable people in a totalitarian political climate. It’s 1984 writ large. Except the authorities won’t care about watching us through the television sets. It’ll be in the devices we carry closest: our mobile phones, our automobiles, our laptops.

We’ve had all the warnings in the world, but these new methods of tracking are intertwined with new technologies. To go backward is simply that, a step back. We will continue to move forward knowing that the potential for abuse exists. Tracking has become more sophisticated since Garfinkel wrote his book, and I wrote my master’s thesis. It hasn’t happened suddenly but has been gradual. And the doomsday scenario of a surveillance society will eventually come true.

Or maybe it already has.