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You: for sale

Companies are able to amass large quantities of information and analyze them with rather astonishing accuracy using Big Data techniques.

What type of information are they gathering on us?

You-For-Sale-2Private companies and database marketers (DMs) have an uncanny ability to gather a ream of useful information about us.  They do this by matching bits and pieces of our online surfing and mobile information with loyalty programs and public records.  The result is your name, address, age, marital status, children, homeowner status, mortgage amount, cars (make and model), salary bracket, portfolio size, buying habits, vacation destinations, charities, and interests (such as travel or sports).  They will also have photos of you on-file which they can estimate weight, note physical disabilities and the like.  Through buying habits, DMs can gauge upcoming events (eg, a couple expecting a baby), the best times to reach you and how, and of course, if you are in the market for a specific item (eg, a new camera).

Most of this information can be analyzed very quickly.  You may first be placed into the general population without any striking characteristics.  From here, your information is given a light once-over to determine whether you have the demographics, or apparent buying habits that might elevate you into more valuable categories.  For example, if you are looking for a new home, or a new car, these potential buyers may be more valuable to prospective sellers, such as real estate companies or car dealerships.  If you are a couple expecting, then private companies such as Target, want to reach out to you to solicit more of your business.

Target for example hired Andrew Pole, a statistician, to help them comb their data to identify customers that had a high probability of being pregnant.   Charles Duhigg describes the process in his New York Times article[1],

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

that was used to correlate the types of purchases that were made by customers.  These customers did not even need to

Social Media

Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and other social media companies collect a tremendous amount of personal information, including your age, marital status, likes and dislikes, friends, political leaning, hobbies, education, city where you live, sexual preferences and so forth.  This information is analyzed and combined with other public information to produce valuable marketing information.  For example, beer companies cannot advertise to underage teens.  But since Facebook knows your age, they can provide age-specific markets by city.  This is very useful.

  • Education
  • Schools and universities
  • Relationships
  • Employer
  • Religion
  • Political views
  • Major life events
  • Family
  • Places where you’ve lived
  • Movies and books you like
  • Sports

By using social media and providing this information, you grant the social media company the right to use this information as it sees fit.  Facebook will use your “likes” to promote products, and you grant them the right to use your photo.

Mobile Location and Contacts

Once an app is installed, it can be granted access to a treasure chest full of information.  This includes your contacts (ie, your friends), their phone numbers and email, your locations as you commute each day, your browser history, your phone calls and text messages.  So, not only are you providing information about yourself, but you are giving out information on your friends and business contacts.

The key of course is making sure that you do not grant access to unknown apps or give too much information to apps that do not use it.

Our mobile devices are equipped with GPS, so location can be transmitted if you grant permission to both web pages and apps to obtain this.  On the Android system, your location information can only be accessed by apps.  There are different ways to protect this, including simply turning off your GPS when you don’t need it.  (This also saves battery.)  You can also insure that apps do not have access in the your personal settings.

But wireless phone companies collect information on your whereabouts from their cell towers.  This information alone can identify the phone user and also tell a lot about the person.  Home and work addresses can be well established.  The phone company can figure out your favorite restaurants, where your friends are, how frequently you travel and your destinations.  You do not need to turn on your GPS to deliver this information to the wireless company.  How they chose to use this information is another story.


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