Big Brother Knows More Than You Think

And by Big Brother I don’t mean the government. No, I mean the companies you do business with. If you want to get mildly freaked out (or majorly league freaked out depending on your nature) read this article in Forbes How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did. Oh and if you are installing apps on your phone take a look at this post on the Blogs at CACM - Most Smartphone Apps are Spyware. Now most of these stores are about practices that are intended to benign at worst and helpful to the consumer at their best. Of course they are designed to be helpful to the company collecting and using the data in all cases. Good, evil, neutral? That’s a topic for discussion.

The technology is pretty interesting though. In some ways it is taking traditional relationship building and expanding it so that it scales for huge impersonal businesses. Patronizing small local shops used to mean buying things from people who knew you, knew you family, and knew your friends. News about you and any changes in your life or situation would be quickly known to the people you did business with on a regular basis. Was that data mining? Not in the way we think of it today of course but it was a fact that people knew people and that allowed them to offer more personal service.

In those days it would still have been weird if the shopkeeper knew that an underage girl was pregnant before her father did. It would not have been so weird if the shopkeeper who talked to everyone in the neighborhood knew someone was pregnant before many other people around town or even in the family.  Good business people have always worked hard to know their customers. Today we just have access to a whole lot of data about a whole lot more people than a small businessperson could ever gather let alone evaluate. Is it the scale or the accuracy that make today’s data mining different? Or is it just that we want our big box stores to be anonymous and impersonal?

These are important issues for people studying computer science, management information systems, and other related fields. It’s not just about legal issues. It’s a lot more compacted than that. As one quote in the Forbes article said “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”  Things like this involve people and emotions as well as privacy and legal responsibilities. We tend to focus on the technical issues and look at what can be done. What should be done can be a totally different set of questions. The sooner students start thinking about these questions the better off we’ll all be in the long run.

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