By now, most of us realize that the US government is tracking our online activity (it’s just to what extent, we’re still a bit unsure), but it’s probably safe to say the bureaucrats know more about us than we’d like them to know. What’s more disturbing, however, is the extent that advertising and marketing companies go to determine who you are, what you do, what you buy, and who you buy from. And it’s no longer just your online activity: data mining allows companies to combine your offline activity with your online activity to create a more accurate profile of everything you do. This aggregation should cause more concern than anything the NSA is doing, and as of now, it’s completely unregulated.
Ever heard of Acxiom? Probably not. Well, Acxiom has heard of you. In fact, they probably know more about you than many of your own family members. Acxiom currently runs 23,000 servers that process more than 50 trillion data transactions per year. Acxiom has dropped over 1.1 billion cookies onto hundreds of millions of Americans’ computers, they have constructed over 200 million mobile profiles and average about 1,500 pieces of data per consumer. Scott Howe, the Acxiom CEO has stated, “Our digital reach will soon approach nearly every Internet user in the US.”
The recent hacking of Target’s commerce system has been widely reported, but what you may not know is what Target knows about you. Target assigns each customer a unique “Guest ID” which is linked to their credit card number, email address and/or name. Every purchase or interaction the customer has with Target is linked to their unique Guest ID. You tend to buy a lot of yogurt, live in San Francisco, and shop with your American Express? Target takes this data and links them to your profile, and then uses it to market more products to you. This seems harmless at first glance, and some would argue that targeted advertising is valuable, however, this data can be aggregated, diced and sliced to predict your future behavior. Target will know if you’re pregnant based on what you purchase. They’ll use that data to predict when you will be interested in buying diapers. Of course, they won’t stop there. They’ll know the gender of your baby when he/she is born, and be able to market to them as well. Lock them in at birth! This is valuable data for other companies too. PetCo will know if you’re buying dog food for your “older pet” and sell the data to insurance companies that will then encourage you to buy health insurance. Sound creepy? Creepier than the NSA logging your phone calls?
Sure, the NSA’s tracking activities should be a major concern, but you might also want to think about what advertising, marketing and data mining companies are doing “behind the scenes” with all those breadcrumbs you’re leaving behind.