Data mining algorithms can determine major life events, but should it?

Most people in this day and age should know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

When you apply for a customer rewards card or promotion that gives you a few dollars off your purchase each week, there’s a reason you fill out a pamphlet with your name, number, address, gender, income bracket and whatever other minute detail of your life a corporation thinks it can get you to surrender.

All that data that is being collected will be utilized by the corporation and then sold to other corporations in an effort to squeeze every last cent out of a customer.  Most people (myself included) are by and large okay with making such Faustian bargains because hey, why not save a couple of bucks every week?

At the best you might get some useful coupons mailed to your house once every week and at worst a telemarketer might get a hold of your number and bother you a couple nights a week until the number gets blocked. Nothing too serious, right?

Well it’s 2012, and the people responsible for data mining have stepped up their game.  No longer are juicy nuggets of data simply being observed and noted.

These days the people that analyze these vast amounts of data are developing more sophisticated and more accurate algorithms to fully capitalize on our everyday subconscious habits and desires. Data mining is obsolete, viva la data smelting.

For example, a New York Times article revealed that after careful analysis, Target has developed an algorithm to detect whether or not a shopper is expecting a child to be born soon based solely on shopping habits, to the extent that Target can guess before anyone around the mother-to-be even realizes she’s pregnant.

Obviously Target isn’t just giving out crib coupons out of the goodness of their heart though. Expecting a child is one of the events in a human’s life that noticeably affects all of their shopping habits, and Target is trying to be the first one that these people latch onto when their habits shift.

This strikes me as an unacceptable predatory business practice.  Some people may be inclined to disagree, saying this is just how capitalism works.  But just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t make it ethical.

Look at it in a different context: what if some company discovers a certain shopping pattern for people that have recently been divorced or are going through a bout of depression?  At these low points in people’s lives, all of a sudden they’re receiving ads for ice cream or single bed sheets.

Maybe they want these items, maybe they need these items, but at the same time you essentially have a company discovering that a human being is at an unstable point in their life, mentally and emotionally compromised, and then using it as an opportunity to push more crap into their life and strongly influence their future decisions.  All without the customer even being aware of the process.

Not to mention, on top of all this, customers barely have any access to the data that has been gathered on them. There is no legal framework in place to guarantee that the average citizen can access the information companies have gathered on us, let alone one to ensure that it is easy and efficient.

Even the F.B.I has the decency to let the average citizen of this country request a copy of their own profile. I’m not saying make these entire databases transparent to the whole world—as that undermines the point of data smelting in the first place by removing the economic advantage that incentivizes it in the first place—and there are some interesting trends and patterns to be observed (even if there are some that shouldn’t be acted upon).

But if my name and social security number are attached to points of data resting on a hard drive platter I want to know just what the heck company’s see of me.  More importantly, I want the power to say, as a citizen and a customer, “these points of data are wrong and should be fixed.”  Or even better, “I want this information about me purged.”

I may not need to or may not want to exercise my right, but there should be some pathway in this country to stand up and say “I am not a collection of information, to be mined, processed, and exploited like a draft horse. I am a human being damn it.”

Hamilton Reed is a senior computer science major.  His columns appear Mondays in the Collegian.  Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com