Go ahead, be evil

This is amazing.

How Companies Learn Your Secrets

The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole's colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.

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.

One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There's, say, an 87 percent chance that she's pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What's more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny's habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she'll use it when she comes back again.

"We have the capacity to send every customer an ad booklet, specifically designed for them, that says, `Here's everything you bought last week and a coupon for it,' " one Target executive told me. "We do that for grocery products all the time." But for pregnant women, Target's goal was selling them baby items they didn't even know they needed yet.

"With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly," the executive said. "Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We'd put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We'd put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.

"And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn't been spied on, she'll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don't spook her, it works."

And of course they're terrified that anyone find out about this:

When I sent Target a complete summary of my reporting, the reply was more terse: "Almost all of your statements contain inaccurate information and publishing them would be misleading to the public. We do not intend to address each statement point by point." The company declined to identify what was inaccurate. They did add, however, that Target "is in compliance with all federal and state laws, including those related to protected health information."

When I offered to fly to Target's headquarters to discuss its concerns, a spokeswoman e-mailed that no one would meet me. When I flew out anyway, I was told I was on a list of prohibited visitors. "I've been instructed not to give you access and to ask you to leave," said a very nice security guard named Alex.

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41 Responses:

  1. Well, if Target wasn't already prohibitively expensive for me, I'd boycott them after reading that.

    • Ben Brockert says:

      Where do you shop? Target has similar prices to Walmart, and is generally less evil and walmartian.

      • I prefer to shop at thrift and dollar stores. I go to a neightborhood Walmart when I can't get what I need elsewhere simply because it's close to where I live, and Target is not.

      • gryazi says:

        Walmart has always struck me as equal-opportunity evil, whereas Target spends a lot to cultivate their "Hey, at least we're not Walmart" image, only to invariably Fuck Up because Shareholder Value:


        (And that's old news and small beans, but you'll have to have been subjected to a certain subculture of people fetishizing the giftcards like Beanie Babies - "GRAB ME A BUNCH OF BLANK ONES THEY'RE KITSCHY" - to understand the full extent of my loathing.)

        I'm kind of looking forward to Benefit Corporations becoming more of a thing.

      • What do they sell at Target or Walmart that they don't sell at your local co-op?

  2. Otto says:

    I'm not sure how this qualifies as "evil", exactly. Is offering to sell somebody things that you know they need really all that evil? Data mining like this would only qualify as evil if you were using the results against the person. Is Target blackmailing pregnant women? Or just giving them discounts in order to get them to shop at their store for products they know the future mothers will be buying?

    • M.E. says:

      First they offered coupons to the pregnant women, then they offered them to the catholics?

      • Otto says:

        Well, with the data mining figuring out that they're Catholic, maybe they won't send them the condom coupons.

    • Ben says:

      Try looking at it this way: what they're doing is pretty-much stalking. Especially the bit where they need to be careful their victim doesn't find out.

      • Otto says:

        Stalkers focus on a specific target, not act en masse through automated algorithms.

        American Express once stopped my card from working because I was travelling cross-country and buying gas along the way. Their computers noticed my spending pattern had changed, and blocked it in case it might be stolen. I called them up, confirmed that it was not, they re-enabled it, and I was on my way. Should I have been pissed off that AmEx was "stalking" me?

        My Tivo monitors what I record and rate and automatically records suggestions based on my viewing preferences. Should that upset me too? It does not. In fact, I opted-in to having them monitor me even more and once a month or so they email me a questionnaire I can fill out to express my preferences further.

        I don't care if automated systems know what I buy. I don't care if automated systems know what I watch. In fact, I'm all for everybody knowing exactly that, because then they might use that data to make better products or better television (to be fair, they can't make much worse television than they do now).

    • Chris Davies says:

      It doesn't bother you at all that an ever-widening circle of people know more about you than you'd ever choose to tell them?

      Sometimes it's kind of funny, like when I went to the Dell website to buy a new laptop and for weeks afterwards every website on the planet was showing me Dell ads. But other instances are getting offensively creepy. The encroachment of credit scores on every aspect of our lives for instance. Why do you need a credit check to get a job? You're going to be paying me not the other way around, right? Fuck those people.

      No amount of discounted stuff is worth your purchasing decisions being scrutinised by persons unknown. What I buy is my business, the store's interest ends when they have my money in their bank. I can still opt out now by not taking any loyalty cards, but I wonder how long that's going to last. Sadly, I can easily see banks and credit card companies getting on board with the data mining industry and selling the results so you can be marketed to, at which point the only opt out you have is to use cash for everything.

      • Otto says:

        It doesn't bother you at all that an ever-widening circle of people know more about you than you'd ever choose to tell them?

        Nope. I would absolutely choose to tell them anything they wanted to know, because I really don't care about that information. What I buy or watch or do isn't something I realistically consider to be privileged information.

        See, the thing is that when somebody is gathering lots and lots of information, then they're not interested in specific details. Such mass information is only useful for finding patterns (data mining) and for statistical levels. They're not tracking "you". Nobody cares about "you". They care about males between the ages of 18-24, or women close to their due date. Things like that. It's as impersonal as a mechanical voice.

        When literally everything is monitored, what that really means is that nobody is actually watching the monitors. There's too much information, not enough viewers. On a side note, this means that if you really want to hide something, all that monitoring just makes it easier. Everybody thinks that they're monitoring that data, but nobody really is.

        • Chris Davies says:

          So what about the instances where people are taking these mass data dumps, running them through fancy algorithms and using the results to make decisions about you personally? Again, using credit scores as a factor in hiring decisions is a great example of that. That's everywhere, and really ought to be illegal.

          People are in fact looking at the data collected about you. Things you wouldn't voluntarily disclose to them, and you'd be offended if they asked you directly.

          • Otto says:

            I dunno. If credit score is a good indicator to them, then I don't really have a problem with them using it.

            I doubt credit score is a really good indicator of job effectiveness though. Depends on the job. Would it be a good thing for somebody working at a bank to have a low credit score?

            If somebody is going to use the fact I watch a lot of science fiction and eat Doritos and prefer Coca-Cola over Pepsi to make some sort of a decision about me, then that's fine. It's probably not going to be a particularly effective indicator for them though, so I doubt anybody would use that information in that way.

            Maybe with better information, better decisions could be made. Instead, they're likely using shitty information and probably making poor decisions based on it. Would need specific examples to decide, but I can't blanket condemn it all as "wrong" outright.

            • Chris Davies says:

              How about if they used the information that you bought 2 packs of cigarettes a day, or frequented bars rather than gyms as part of the decision making process? Health is a pretty "good indicator" for employers when making a hiring decision, it's just not information commonly available to them. Similarly, it's a "good indicator" for employers that a married woman of child bearing age is a bad investment as a hire, and we explicitly have to make it illegal to consider marital status, sex or age as factors in hiring to stop them. They would if they could, and in the past when it was legal they did.

              Other forms of discrimination are just as insidious but still legal. You seem to think it's fine as long as it isn't you that's getting the shaft.

            • Elusis says:

              What if somewhere down the line, some algorhythm predicts that males of your age group and race who watch a lot of science fiction and eat Doritos and prefer Coca-Cola over Pepsi are statistically more likely to over-use their company dental plan, use all of their sick days on Mondays and Fridays, spend 22 minutes of every hour surfing non-work websites, and have complaints filed against them with HR for sexual or racial harassment? And so when you apply for a job you really need or want at Big MegaCorp, they hire someone who is male, of your age group and race, who watches ESPN and reality TV, eats Pringles, and prefers Pepsi over Coca-Cola?

          • Palmir says:

            (A low) credit score is an indication that you are more likely to steal from your employer. The fraud triangle goes like this: opportunity, rationalization, pressure. Opportunity's fairly easy; rationalization's easier. Pressure? Nothing like having large credit card debt and lots of bills to pay to give you a reason to steal from your employer.

            This is arguably also a good way to keep poor people "in their place" (people with more wealth will generally have better credit scores, it's harder for lower income people to maintain good credit, so people who are better off will be more likely to be hired if credit rating is a factor in the hiring decision). The fact remains that there is a correlation between "low credit score" and "will steal from you if you hire them," and from a company's perspective it may be rather on the stupid side to intentionally hire someone who you know has a higher chance of stealing from you.

          • NotTheBuddha says:

            So what about the instances where people are taking these mass data dumps, running them through fancy algorithms and using the results to make decisions about you personally?

            Is it better when people make decisions about you without that sort of objective information and use their opinion of your religion or your nativity instead?

        • gryazi says:

          Except that you probably won't know where the actual tripwire for "shit you do find personally disturbing starts happening" was set until you stumble into it. The system for buying Sudafed, for instance, is conveniently arranged to warn you and cut you off rather than sending a SWAT team into the store, but is our only protection from that the sanity of our legislators?

          The private sector only cares about selling shit, but think about who's buying. Ever donated to a charity that some group might oppose? Ever made a purchase that might connect you with a demographic that's bad for property values? Data mining of that sort is pretty haphazard for now (although I'm pretty sure the list of people to remind to vote on the Wednesday after the first Monday in November is an established commodity), but that doesn't necessarily make the results any prettier.

          This problem is not completely unrelated to the one of "So exactly what set of facts establishes a US citizen to be enough of a terrorist that the feds can legally go all 24 on him in downtown [insert US city here]?"

      • NotTheBuddha says:

        It doesn't bother you at all that an ever-widening circle of people know more about you than you'd ever choose to tell them?

        You're choosing to tell them most of it when you ask them to trust that a plastic card with your name on it means they'll get paid later for stuff you want them to give you now. Expecting them not to fill in the blanks is not realistic.

    • gryazi says:

      Is there a difference between "creepy", "offensive", and "evil?"

      It's possibly "creepy" that somewhere out there databases "believe" things about you personally. Sometimes there's an obvious concern; other times the biggest impact is probably the inconvenience (see: decision fatigue) of being forced to have to decide whether the fact that the information is logged actually exposes you to any new 'risks.'

      It's possibly "offensive" to certain ineffable assumptions in USian society to receive different treatment because of certain attributes, but the specifics are pretty hairy when you think about it: If Amazon coughs up "People who bought WATERMELON also bought FRIED CHICKEN," is society more likely to take it in stride because wacky statistical correlations have always been a feature there than if a supermarket chain customized its flyers? It's chivalrous to give a pregnant woman the last seat on the bus, but apparently weird to offer unsolicited discounts - maybe because 'we' know there's no 'human' element to it? (Link tangentially related; psych majors, cough up a better one - though maybe we can start calling this customer service's Uncanny Valley, along with that kid in India being forced to answer the phone as "Steve".)

      Automation [and also simply 'management'] reduces every chain of events to "just following orders" - so it seems "evilness" is the subjective interpretation of some combination of intent and result (and if the original codifiers have left the building, does everyone have plausible deniability?*). The pragmatic - though not procedural - way to approach this is to ask "Does this create a world we want to live in?"**


      *,** This is why it became such a trip to get McDonalds to stop serving coffee at skin-removing temperatures, and why that was or wasn't worth doing, depending which side of that debate you're on.

    • jwz says:

      I think the fact that they're afraid of letting anyone know that they're doing this and won't talk to the press about it says a lot. It means they know that their customers would freak the fuck out because it's creepy as hell.

      If you need to hide how your business works from the people you do business with, you're probably not a nice person.

      • gryazi says:

        Yeah. It's still pretty insane how arbitrary meat is about setting the bar for "creepy as hell", though, isn't it?

        Rather than go for the low-hanging fruit of "If the clerk notices and happens to mention there's a sale on Pampers" -- which a lot of businesses have coded the equivalent of into their 'do this or we'll stop paying you minimum wage and you'll have to go rent a Budget van and work as an Independent Contractor for FedEx' scripts -- Let's think about that poor schmuck in [Foreign Country] who has to call up and try to sell you on credit protection every time you open a new card account. That seems to be the exact razor's edge of human tolerance - we put up with the "one time" annoyance because it's An Actual Person Doing Their Job, but if they switched to robocalling that crap you know it'd be dead faster than "oh yeah, and we're going to start charging you $7 a month to have a debit card."

        (Which seems a little off from 'personally sensitive information' until you consider that we're letting random people outsourced to by a subcontractor take down all our financial account details without even blinking any more, but people would probably scream bloody scandal if some megabank decided to outsource a datacenter to Russia.)

      • ix says:

        I don't know, I think people get creeped out because they didn't realise how it worked. If you know that giving up your data ("getting a customer card") means they'll be tracking you like this, you might not object at all (YMMV of course, but I have known for a long time and never really cared). But what happens when that data is not just used to print coupons, but resold to aggregators, and used to build a much more detailed view of your life? One that can be used by law enforcement, prospective employers, etc. Now that's opening Pandora's box.

        What we need are laws that limit reselling data, require full disclosure, prohibit non-voluntary tracking (on credit cards, account nrs...) and so on... In Europe we have kind of a head start on that, and I think the fact that it is quite hard to actually resell data is the biggest barrier, and what has put me most at ease. Not to say there are no problems....

      • Palmir says:

        I don't think they don't want this information out because it will freak people out. I think they don't want this information out because it's internally confidential material they don't want their competitors to know. They want to maintain whatever competitive edge this type of marketing may give them.

        This may or may not be more evil (well, soul-less) than your interpretation. If they thought people would freak out, then they would be exercising some measure of empathy; if they're doing it because they don't want their competitors to be able to figure out what they're doing, they have no empathy whatsoever and are only concerned with how their shareholders feel.

        • NotTheBuddha says:

          It might be knee-jerk proprietary secrecy, but it's not especially a trade secret giving a competitive edge; if you recall IBM ran commercials dramatizing how the guy in the back of the supermarket tracked and leveraged everything people bought together as far back as 1997 or so.

          Hiding how accurate the tracking is by intentionally including other ads for fear of creeping people out, but it's not particularly more harmful to consumers than map companies and other database publishers deliberately including bogus entries to detect copying.

      • Otto says:

        Well, naturally. People are ego-driven. When you tell somebody "they're tracking you" then they get upset. But when you tell them "they're tracking all shoppers at Target and sending diaper coupons to what they think are prospective mothers" then it's a bit different, isn't it?

        It's the difference between an emotional response and an intellectual response. It's one thing if there's a guy behind the scenes going "heh heh, this chick is preggers and needs diapers!" vs. a computer algorithm seeing lotion sales and saying "lotion = true: send diaper coupons;".

        Even if the Singularity arrives, I'm pretty darned sure it won't give a shit about my proclivities for Mt. Dew and Coffee.

    • nooj says:

      I think part of what you are overlooking is the difference between "private" and "secret". It may not be a secret that I buy lotion, but I consider it private, and I don't appreciate Target using the knowledge for personal gain.

      • Otto says:

        Secret is indeed different from private, and I grant you that people have different opinions, but if I buy anything from somebody, then expecting it to be "private" from the person I actually bought it from is silly.

      • NotTheBuddha says:

        Are you high? How can you expect Target not to pay attention to what Target sells and to use that for personal gain?

        • nooj says:

          I didn't say I expected it. I said I didn't appreciate it; I especially don't appreciate Target unabashedly toeing the line of how evil they can be.

          We're not just talking about Target, here. We're talking about every company which interacts with a lot of people creating massive social databases and distilling them into specific user-identifiable behaviors. These companies may be doing it for reasons that you call perfectly legitimate; but it is not such a leap to having these databases pillaged for not-so-legitimate reasons, such as identity theft or prosecution of recreational drug use.

          It's exceptionally hard these days not to give out indicators of social behavior (products purchased, comings and goings, websites visited). That doesn't mean I want some divorce lawyer subpoenaing the various databases and throwing it all out there to prove I was sleeping with some other guy. Some stuff is private. Please don't track me.

          • nooj says:

            (Okay, "toe the line" isn't the phrase I meant; "push the line" is.)

          • NotTheBuddha says:

            The solution to your problem is "pay with cash" or "don't do business with profit-seeking entities".

            • nooj says:

              Thanks, I never thought of that. Paying with cash online is really hard.

              Also, video surveillance footage and facial recognition have helped Walmart fix the "cash problem".

            • nooj says:

              > "don't do business with profit-seeking entities"

              You have tragically low standards. You should get that looked at.

  3. Jon Konrath says:

    All I can say is don't go to Target after you get an illicit eye transplant, because you're going to see nothing but that dude's ads.

  4. piku says:

    I think I'd rather have Tesco Value Big Brother watching my habits and sending out useful coupons/whatever, than trying to either sneakily upsell higher priced brands or just send me generic coupons for stuff I never buy.

    For enlightening fun, go onto Google and click the "why these ads" link that hides on the bottom of some pages. The Internet and store loyalty cards provide a level of user tracking the government must wet themselves over. Especially when we've turned GPS tracking into a fun social game since you know one day there'll be some sort of outrage as a company uses your geolocation data for marketing purposes.

    • nooj says:

      > than trying to either sneakily upsell higher priced brands
      > or just send me generic coupons for stuff I never buy.

      they do that, too.

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