Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Can Data-Mining be Avoided?

I began writing this post yesterday and guess what? Today (January 28th) is Data Privacy Day! I had no idea but I'll pretend I did. So, in honor of Data Privacy Day, I give you this blog post:

AT&T recently announced a unique service to four communities in Austin. Customers who opted for this service would receive a discount on their bill, the fastest connection in all of Austin, and the customers wouldn't have to do a thing!

Well, that's not entirely true, I suppose. The customer does have to give up a little something we often refer to as privacy.

Yup. The catch here is that AT&T will know what their customer searches for on the internet and what sites they visit. This information will assist AT&T with tailoring ads to fit that person's lifestyle.

Never fear! AT&T claims they won't share or sell this information! And they won't be able to track your banking information or credit card purchases, so that's not a problem either. Plus, the ads might actually be something you are interested in -- not some silly product you'd never buy.

Okay... that doesn't sound too bad. Right?

In my opinion, it sounds ridiculous. I may not have anything to hide, but I don't really want all of my website history to be "out there" in someone's file.

But the fact of the matter is that AT&T is one of the few companies actually asking for permission to data-mine. An exposition by Charles Duhigg of the New York Times exposes Target's data-mining ways. Even if you do not sign up for Target's Red Card, you are still assigned an ID number based off of your credit card number. Target tracks your purchases based on that number and can even make predictions as to what you'll buy next. That way, Target can mail or email you coupons that cater to those needs.

Again, what's so wrong with this? At least the ads make sense for the consumer.

Look, if you want fast internet, you're low on cash, and you don't have any secrets to hide, I say go for AT&T's deal. If you want coupons that have to do with what you're going to need in the near future, please continue paying with your debit or credit card at Target. And don't forget to give them your email and mailing address while you're at it. If that's what you want to do, absolutely no judgement here.

Besides, this data-mining can't be avoided. Most companies data-mine like crazy -- especially online companies because it's much easier to track purchases due to IP addresses and the fact that debit/credit
Photo found here. This link is actually pretty interesting.
DirecTV is apparently targeting their ads now too.  
cards must be used in online purchases. If data-mining can't be avoided, might as well reap the rewards by getting some coupons, right?

But what are the companies doing with the data? Besides targeting ads, they also have the option to sell that data to other companies (well, AT&T claimed they wouldn't, but they are one of the few). Even if you only sign up for a rewards card at one store, other stores could soon have your purchase history and your product preferences. They could also have your email address, mailing address, or phone number. That means more targeted ads and more of your shopping history being collected.

Pretty crazy, right?

So does this mean we should all become paranoid and stop shopping?

I don't think so. (At least, I hope not!)

But if you value your privacy, there are a few things you can do to avoid (or at least cut back on) data-mining:
  1. Pay in cash. This is the easiest way to stop the data-mining before it begins. If they don't know who you are, they can't keep track of your info and purchase history. Cash does not have a number linked to your name or purchase history, so it's the safest and easiest way to go if you want to stay off-grid. 
  2. Refuse to give out any info. At the cash register when they begin the transaction with asking you for a phone number or zip code, just say "No thanks". The cashier almost always makes it sound necessary to know this information in order to continue the transaction but it is simply not a requirement to shop there. You are under no obligation to give out your personal information. Trust me, I've refused to give my information many times at stores and it is never an issue. 
  3. Customer reward cards are a no-go. Stop signing up for the stupid customer reward cards. You're giving them everything: name, phone number, address, email -- the mother-load. Just stop.
  4. Special credit cards are also a tool. You do not need a credit card at every retail store you visit. And if you want to keep your privacy, avoid all such cards. I don't care if you get 5% off with every purchase -- the company makes much more money off of you by using the data that credit card collects to smother you in ads. 
  5. Never go out. Never shop. Never buy anything. Okay, obviously that is a bit extreme and is not doable for most (excuse me, all) people's lifestyles. It is the only way to truly avoid all of this data-mining, though. I don't think we need to be afraid of the data-mining, but no need to give out personal information at every store, sign up for every credit card, and give the companies everything they want. 

In the age of technology, data-mining is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid or control. If it bothers you, there are ways to avoid it. If you simply don't care and just want the deals, realize that you're being played. Targeted ads earn a company about 2.7 times the revenue as a random ad. That means that the target (you!) is spending more money.

So, who's the real winner here? I'll give you a clue: it's not the consumer. 

Does data-mining make you paranoid? 
Or are you happy to get the coupons? 


  1. Thanks Mary - this is one of the more balanced, informative writings I've seen on this topic!

    I would push back on your conclusion a bit - I think the consumer is also a winner in data sharing. Many of us choose to voluntarily trade some of our data for the services, products and deals that we desire because it benefits us in some way. I love my Target Red card because it saves me 5% on every purchase I make AND it personalizes my deals.

    You seem well read on the issue but, if you're interested, Mercatus scholar Adam Theirer has written extensively on this topic from a free-market perspective. He just posted this morning about it (http://techliberation.com/2014/01/27/is-privacy-an-unalienable-right-the-problem-with-privacy-paternalism/) and did some PBS and NPR media the last week.

    One of his conclusions is that we should educate folks on their options - like you're doing here. Using cash, refusing to answer clerks, etc. The more information people have, the better prepared they are to make a decision on if/how much info they want to trade for the things they want. I'm all for education. I'm certainly NOT for legal restrictions on data mining. I think you would agree - people should always have the right to exchange information freely.

    My two cents.

    Again, great topic! I for one would love to see more of your economic commentary.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and thoughts. Just to clarify, I do not believe the government should regulate data-mining or outlaw it. Consumers often hand their information out willingly in order to snag the deals or get rewards. It is not the government's role to outlaw something that people do willingly in a free society.

      I absolutely agree with you and Adam Theirer about educating the consumer so that they can make an informed decision. I can see that you believe Target's data collecting of your purchase history is helpful to you because you get 5% off with your card and you get custom coupons. I, on the other hand, do not find it helpful because, well, I love to shop. So when a store gives me a coupon or shows me an ad that features something I did not even know I wanted (but they did because they have been collecting my data), it encourages me to spend money I probably would not have spent otherwise (or at least not spent on that product).

      I think Adam's statement sums it up quite nicely: "[In a free society, data-mining] will always be a hugely contentious matter and that a great many people will gladly trade away their privacy in a way that others will consider outrageous..."

      Thanks, again!

      Mary Kate