Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Creeping Predictive Analytics Are the Price of the Information Age

Charles Duhigg has a fascinating and somewhat creepy article in the New York Times on how corporations can know so much about you through "predictive analytics."  Target can figure out that your daughter is pregnant before you do, to take one example from the article, just from her series of ordinary-looking purchases.

Sellers have gotten so good at figuring out what you will buy and sending you suggestions when you are vulnerable to change buying habits that customers have figured out that they are being spied upon.  So the companies have developed a new layer of subterfuge to hide their suggestions within seemingly random offers, most of which they know you will ignore.

The irony of my reading this article in the online version of the Times is that now the Times knows of my interest in predictive analytics, and can tuck that away in its own database of thing to try to sell me - such as Charles Duhigg's book on predictive analytics and habit formation.

I am reconciled to the fact that in exchange for the thousand ways that I benefit daily from the information revolution, the price I pay is that information providers know a great deal about me. And some of them will try to sell me stuff, based on that information.

I don't see "living off the grid" as in any way an attractive strategy.  So the realistic options in a world in which large corporations and the state constantly spy on me are
1) live a public life; and
2) buy at small local stores.  With cash.


Sister Edith said...

I am less sanguine than you seem to be about the data amassed, but agree that life off the grid isn't possible for an academic - or most folks.

I have decided to use fewer free services - "If you aren't paying, you are the product" - and to spend a bit of effort on extensions and add-ons that clean up cookies etc that track from site to site.

I knew my efforts were payinf off when my search results became less useful - I have to sort through more listings. It let's me know just how targeted I was, and reinforces my desire to break out of the bubble when I can.

gruntled said...

Boy, if a nun worries about being spied on, what hope have the rest of us. :-)

Seriously, I agree that there is something to worry about in being the "product." Do you have cookie-clearing add-ons to recommend?

Sister Edith said...

I use quite a few in each browser. Click-and-Clean, TACO, and Ghostery all help; Ghostery drives me bonkers by telling me what it blocks.

My concern with privacy is partly related to my monastery. When I'm teaching my Family & Society course, I often carry out searches for news videos on topics that include sex trafficking.

I wouldn't be eager to have those topics linked to my name even as a lay person. But there would be repercussions for the entire community if some snoop connected my sex trafficking searches with the monastery rather than the educational connection.

People used to worry that their name would be seen on the library check-out card. This is the 21st century version, I guess.