BY JULIA KLINEFELTER
We’ve all been there; advertisements and special sales seem to follow us wherever we go. They’re so integrated into our culture it just seems like a dull background noise. Why should we care that advertisements and companies trying to sell products are everywhere we look? It’s because Companies care about you. No seriously, just like a school kid crush, they want to know everything about us. They want to know who we are, where we live, what our relationship status is, where we like to go, but most importantly what we buy. That seems to be the golden question on every CEO’s mind: what do we buy and how can they make it so we buy from them? The answer is data mining.
Data mining is a process used by companies to turn raw data into useful information. By using software to look for patterns in large batches of data—our data; who we are, where we shop, how long we linger on a website—businesses can learn intimate details about us and then develop more effective marketing strategies that both increase sales and decrease traditional advertising costs. And it seems every company has joined the bandwagon and started to data mine.
Data mining is not a relatively new thing. Companies all over have been using loyalty cards as a way of tracking our shopping habits and then sending out coupons based on previous purchases for a while. But in this new digital age, where more and more new types of data collection are being used, it‘s difficult to understand where to draw the line. In an article in the New York Times called Attention Shoppers: Store is tracking your cell, Stephanie Clifford and Quentin Hardy explain that many retail stores, most famously Nordstrom’s, began an experiment as part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods using video surveillance and signals from their cell-phones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.
Target has also recently gotten into trouble for its pregnancy formula. Target has created a 25 itemized list of what pregnant women usually buy in the first semester (ex. vitamin supplements, coco butter lotion, extra large clothing, a rocking chair) that it compares to women’s shopping habits; when there’s a match, Target sends women coupons for baby supplies. Their goal from this is to get pregnant shoppers into their store by their second semester and then entice them to continue shopping even after the child’s birth. Target hit a snag when they sent out coupons for baby supplies to a teenage girl who had not told anyone about her pregnancy. Her father found out about his daughter only after he complained to Target about their marketing materials. Through data mining, Target was on target.
Even the United States Government has been able to use data mining to their advantage. The Washington Post’s article NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking by Ashikan Soltani, Andrea Peterson and Barton Gellman states that the National Security Agency is using Google’s data about consumers to pinpoint terrorists and threats to the national security without Google’s consent. Data mining has become so grand that it is now being used to hunt down threats to the United States. And here we thought tapping citizen phone lines was crossing the line. Now they know everything about us down to what toilet paper brand we prefer.
Unfortunately there is not a lot we can do to protect ourselves from companies spying on our shopping and browsing habits. One thing we can do is delete cookies on a regular basis. Cookies are small files automatically sent from browsers to our computers (the default on all browsers is to “accept” cookies. They are designed to hold a modest amount of data specific to a particular client and website, and can be accessed either by the web server or the client computer. In simple terms, cookies collect information on what sites we visit, what products we are looking up and buy. We can delete cookies from any browser: here is a step by step process.
My main point is not to scare you or make you think that companies are evil and that you should never trust the internet again. It is to be more aware of your surroundings. We are in a day of age where we receive and give information instantaneously. Yes it is true that companies know a lot more about us than we assume but it is also beneficial. For example, the other day I wanted to buy a Big Bang Theory Christmas ornament for my friend. I had it in my cart and was ready to buy it but was distracted and never completed my purchase. A day later I received an email from the ornament company telling me that the exact ornament was 50% off and I could have up to 10 dollars off my next purchase. While I was a bit frantic by Ornament Co’s insistency, I was able to buy something I was already going to buy and got a free Doctor Who shirt for myself out of it. It’s a dog eat dog world in consumerism, just remember that you are the bigger dog.