Big Data Arrives

Our minds are being read and our impulses and habits analyzed and exploited without our knowing it.  According The New York Times, Target, the chain of retail stores is discerning the signs that tell a woman is pregnant so they can get a head start in selling her maternity products.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Through its own data collecting, Target knows its customers ages, marital status, children, and neighborhood, credit cards, estimated salary and what Web sites they have visited.  Moreover, as noted in this week’s Sunday Magazine, any company can also “can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own.”  And with the help of savvy analysts, they can use that data to figure out if you’re pregnant.  (See “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.”)

If you add up all the unstructured data coming through the “Internet of Things,” the sensors imbedded throughout our world, not to mention tweets, Facebook postings, Google searches, etc. etc. there is an extraordinary mass of data to be sifted though and analyzed.

“It’s a revolution,” says the director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, adding, “the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business, and government. There is no area that is going to be untouched.”

That sounds exciting.  It’s also frightening.

It’s useful in economic forecasting, as the Times noted two weeks ago: “research has shown that trends in increasing or decreasing volumes of housing-related search queries in Google are a more accurate predictor of house sales in the next quarter than the forecasts of real estate economists.”  It’s also being used in forecasting electoral politics, even swings in stock markets.  (See,  “The Age of Big Data”)

Last fall, the Times reported on how a research arm of an intelligence agency (Iarpa) and the Defense Department (Darpa) are looking into predicting “political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability.”  They will routinely and automatically scan data from “Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.” (See, “Government Aims to Build a Data Eye in the Sky.”)

If this makes you uneasy, join the crowd.  As a follow up to last Sunday’s article on Target, the company came down hard on the researcher who had talked to the Time’s reporter.  He commented: “Target intervened, and [he] stopped returning my phone calls.”

No doubt Target doesn’t want to be seen snooping into people’s private lives — though that is exactly what they are doing.  But so is virtually everyone else.  The government is beginning to worry about invasions of privacy, and some limits will be imposed.  Manufacturers are considering installing a “Do Not Track” button on computers and phones.  (See, “Behind the Cover Story: How Much Does Target Know?”)

But, it looks as though the battle has already been lost.  You can’t stop a revolution.