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That data miner’s watching you

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You know, you’re not really worrying quite enough about the information being collected about you, your preferences, your obsessions and your movements. Not by the government, not by security agencies or law enforcement officials, but by the companies that serve you everyday.

I suspect that everyone reading this blog is familiar with the tracking and monitoring put in place by online companies like Amazon, whose recommendation engine analyzes your previous searches, purchases and related items and then suggest related books that might interest you.

But Steven Baker’s The Numerati sheds some light on the many, many efforts underway to collect information on individuals, groups, professions, communities and demographic segments. Information that can then be analyzed by teams of highly skilled mathematicians, statisticians and inspired polymaths to identify associations between seemingly disparate details – associations that can be used to make decisions about how the company approaches you as a customer.

Once this information is properly analyzed, companies can target advertising, design product placement in grocery stores, monitor your elderly parents, pull together teams of consultants from across the world, anticipate the onset of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and, of course, drive you to the polls on election day.

“I think we’re in the early days yet. They don’t know you all that well yet. … One of the important things is that they’re beginning in areas where they can make mistakes …

The shopping people have ridiculous amounts of data about the shopping patterns of every one of us, so they can understand what makes a Cheerios buyer a likely Cheerios buyer. The counter-terrorists do not have good data on how potential terrorists behave, so it makes it very difficult for them …”

Eerily, Baker recounts one part of a conversation with the chief mathematician of the National Security Agency, who Baker asked “do you get too much information?”

The response? “You can never have too much information. You might not understand it; you might not know how to manage it; you might not know how to store it, but you can never have too much.”

Remember: the Numerati described in Baker’s book are not collecting personal information (in what we would consider the traditional interpretation), but their work can reveal a tremendously rich portrait of a customer’s preferences and choices. When combined with standard demographic data, or even voter files, these math wonks can create profiles that can help marketers, product designers or political consultants to focus and target their efforts to sway your decision making.

“They make tons of mistakes. The areas where they thrive are those like advertising, where they can afford to make mistakes.”

The quotes above are taken from an interview between Stephen Baker and Leonard Lopate of WNYC radio.

Nora Young, the host of CBC Radio’s Spark, also interviewed Baker, and there was one comment that was particularly insightful – and funny:

“There was one story about an FBI agent in California who wanted to track the consumption of hummus, thinking that hummus could be an indicator of terrorist acitivity. And you know, I don’t know about here, but where I live hummus is an indicator of yoga.”

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