Linking the mall to the laptop
Published: 2012-12-28 07:28
By Philip J. Cunningham ( China Daily)
'He sees when you are sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake".
Most young kids in the United States are presented with the specter of a judgmental, all-knowing Santa Claus, such as the one portrayed in the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The idea is that the material goods obtained during the Christmas season, usually placed under a Christmas tree, are not randomly chosen gifts of unconditional generosity; but instead are bestowed based on information painstakingly collected about one's behavior during the course of the year.
Sooner or later, however, the wistful rite of passage comes when kids realize that Santa Claus is not real, and with it, a liberating sense that their behavior is not in fact tracked and rated as closely as once thought.
Then along comes adulthood in the Internet age and you find out that you are in fact being tracked and rated in ways that even Santa would find invasive.
The surveillance center is not some remote outpost near the North Pole with grunt work carried out by underpaid elves and transportation bottled up by moody reindeer, but sunny Silicon Valley, where US Internet giants find ever more clever and ingenious ways to take your private data and combine it with an analysis of your online persona, your real world whereabouts and your shopping history to sell you a bill of goods for a profit.
Google has a gift for retailers this season, something called Conversions API, which promises new, improved customer surveillance that will "connect the dots" between what potential spenders are doing online and what they actually buy at the mall. A conversion is the moment when a customer's online interest in a product, or visit to the brick and mortar store, can be linked with a sale. Google's new service promises to combine "user engagement metrics", that is their knowledge of everything you do online, with retailer "bid optimization strategies", what retailers do to make you buy, in order to get a "conversion", in other words a sale, at the cash register.
Kaching! Google is coming to town.
Shoppers normally cover up to stay warm at this time of year but in terms of commercial surveillance they have never been more exposed. You park your car wondering about security cameras and firms that track license plates. You enter the anchor store at the mall where your every move is tracked by cameras. Shopping behavior patterns, pausing here, revisiting there, can be extracted from this data for in-house analysis. When it's time to pay, you are reminded of the advantages of a shopper loyalty card, a discount in exchange for information that can be monetized in a way that more than pays for the discount, and then you pull out your credit card, a real weak link if you want to protect personally identifiable information from the data chain.
For those who prefer transactions in cash, and would rather not reveal their name, it takes only three questions of the sort that are routinely and "innocently" asked online, and at the mall, to be pinpointed and identified effectively as individuals: gender, zip code and date of birth.
But your privacy is no better than that of one of Santa's reindeer if you are tethered to a smartphone, because it knows precisely where you are and quite a bit about what you are doing day and night, indoors and out. It's an appealing one-stop shop and information source for data collectors who crave to "connect the dots" between identity, address, shopping habits, phone records and real-time location. If you like to e-mail, tweet or text, it's also a ready directory of friends and an indication of online predilections and peccadilloes.
Yahoo and Google have been scanning the content, down to how you dot the last "i" and cross the last "t" in e-mail messages for years, though we are supposed to feel reassured that it is mostly machines, not gentlemen, reading our mail, and similar "protections" are said to be in place through the process of anonymizing PII, personally identifiable information, though this process is as leaky as human nature. Whenever an aggressive, profit-driven commercial giant says, "trust us" it's usually a good time to look for the nearest exit.
The way data miners and data exploiters get around the weak provisions of US law protecting PII is to mix and match partial data from different sources, collecting one type of data from one source, let's say a phone number, while getting another kind of data, let's say the anonymized content of your emails, or photos you've posted online, with things that interest you, as judged by your postings on Facebook, your "likes," your surfing habits and your search term profile.
Auto sales in both China and the US have been tainted by reports of misuse of personal data, which is not entirely surprising since cars are a big-ticket item, necessarily licensed and relatively easy to track, and often unwittingly reveal things about the owner.
The Wall Street Journal carried a telling story this month, "They know what you're shopping for" suggesting that one's effort to research autos online may backfire in the sense that the details of your search are available to the very salesmen you are hoping to negotiate with in your purchase of a new car. The more you try to learn about them, the more they know about you, even before you step into the auto showroom.
Just when you thought you had been long since liberated from the all-knowing gaze of the bearded dude in the red suit you find out that you are being tracked and rated in an eerily familiar, all-encompassing manner by people who want your money.
The alchemy of turning soft information into hard cash must appear outright magical, if not a bit spooky, to someone unacquainted with the latest snooping technology.
Happy holiday shopping! Ho, ho, ho!