Wang: Data mining not too concerning, but company transparency needs bolstering

Michael Wang, Columnist
April 29, 2013 •

People may go to all lengths to privatize their activities, but in this day and age, it’s is not an easy feat. Although most people are smart enough not to post anything on Facebook they don’t want others to see, few are aware of the lengths to which companies will go to track their activities.

One famous real-world example comes from a February 2012 New York Times article, which explained that Target, through tracking credit card purchases and survey responses, was able to estimate whether or not a woman was pregnant based on her recent store purchases. For example, a woman who suddenly started buying unscented lotions, large purses or certain vitamin supplements might be a hint to Target’s statisticians that she was pregnant. As a result, the store would start sending personalized advertisements featuring baby care products to the potential would-be mother.

To store your data, Target keeps a file called the “Guest ID.” It includes personal and financial information, as well as your shopping history, among other things. So, although you thought you were in the clear when you drove to the Target in the next city and went through the self-checkout lane to avoid letting anyone know about your obsession with Cheez Whiz you made the mistake of using your credit card, allowing a data analyst for Target to cackle and rub his hands together while prying his peeping eyes into your shopping history. After all, companies can make big money by collecting information about you and using that to market its products.

The seemingly obsessive amounts of data mining that companies do also follow you home. Google, which makes most of its profits selling personalized ad space on its search engine, does not shy away from collecting your data. I was curious to find out what exactly Google knew about me. Thankfully, I was easily able to find out through Google’s Dashboard feature and Ad Service page. Most of the information was not surprising, especially because I technically gave them consent at one point or another to collect any and all data they currently have on me.

I started writing this article Saturday, and at that time Google knew my entire search and web history for the previous three weeks. Furthermore, because I have an Android phone with GPS functionality, Google also knew my entire location history over the last month. Their servers logged 43 instances where I entered Tech. Although I have no idea what happens to the data after 30 days, a counter on their website tells me that Google has tracked more than 200 miles of my movement, showing that their servers have been logging my location for a long time.

The location tracking is particularly interesting to me. I found out from a March 2013 CNN article that even if your phone’s GPS tracking data is sent anonymously, it can still be used to identify you. In fact, with just four data points from your phone, you can be identified with 95 percent certainty.

Finally, Google tries to guess your interests based on browsing history, no doubt in an effort to send personalized advertisements. Among the search engine's guesses, some of the things they correctly estimated about me were my gender and my interests, which include watching action and science fiction movies, learning about chemistry and electronics and playing tennis. Google incorrectly guessed my age — which it estimated as at least 25 — and my supposed interests in squash and racquetball, phone service providers and women’s clothing. I have to admit, however, that Google doesn't make these guesses for no reason, which, in the last case, yields some terrifying implications.

Although data mining could seem intrusive, I am not particularly bothered by it. Companies use your data to personalize their interactions with you. Furthermore, companies do have an incentive to use your data prudently – they don’t want to scare you away. If you do find that you are uncomfortable with sharing your information, you cannot only ask most companies to discard your data, but you can stop them from tracking you by not using their services.

I do have one issue, though. I believe that most people, including me, will be OK with sharing their information. What many aren’t OK with, and what is happening now, is that there isn’t always a clear line of communication between companies and users concerning this data. All companies must make an effort for greater transparency in how they collect data, or else everyone will lose – users will feel taken advantage of and companies will be on the wrong side of a privacy backlash.

Michael Wang is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at michaelwang2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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