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Big Data is Watching

Barbara Bensoussan

We willingly volunteer our most sensitive personal information to big business, hoping to get products or services in return. If it ended there, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s just the tip of the Exabyte.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Malka is expecting a baby, but as she’s only at the beginning of her fourth month, nobody except her husband knows about it.

Except Target, that is. The Target Corporation, with the artful assistance of… big data.

What’s big data? Big data is consists of the masses upon masses of digital records logged every day as we all go about our daily business. Any time you swipe a credit card or access the Internet, you leave digital footprints that track your spending habits, the size of your wallet, and your personal tastes. Your medical information is now uploaded to online databases; your taxes are processed online. The GPS in your car or smartphone tracks your location and movements. All this data is increasingly warehoused into huge databases which can be “mined,” or analyzed, to provide information for uses as diverse as advertising, law enforcement — or finding the cure for cancer.

Malka’s situation is one good example. Using sophisticated analyses of millions of consumers’ purchasing habits, Target researchers were able to identify products whose purchase correlates highly with an upcoming birth. Apparently, women who start buying products like unscented lotions and zinc and magnesium supplements are also very likely to be considering what color to paint the nursery. In fact, writes Charles Duhigg in his 2012 New York Times piece “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” Target data analysts have found that by tracking the purchases of a group of 25 key products, they can calculate the baby’s date of birth with almost as much precision as Malka’s obstetrician.


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