I have an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald today about the surveillance society, something that’s already with us.
Computers can tell when your daughter is pregnant. Sometimes they know even before you do. In a recent feature for The New York Times, Charles Duhigg describes how Target in the US analyses everything it knows about its customers. A young woman buying unscented lotion, a large handbag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a brightly coloured rug is likely to be pregnant. So Target dispatches coupons for baby clothes.
When a father stormed into a store complaining that his teenage daughter had received the coupons, Target was forced to apologise. But days later, he realised the store was right…
You can click through to read the whole thing. But since it was written for the dead-tree paper and not the website there are no links.
Here’s the links to my sources:
- The New York Times feature by Charles Duhigg, How companies learn your secrets.
- A Forbes summary of that piece, How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did. It’s a good summary, but I do recommend reading the full NYT version.
- An article explaining how Forbes capitalised on the NYT article in web traffic terms.
- A 2006 piece from The Guardian explaining how much could be gleaned from the AOL web search logs, even though they were supposedly anonymous.
- An article in Wired explaining similar things.
- The 2010 academic paper Myths and fallacies of ‘personally identifiable information’ [PDF] by computer scientists Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov. I reckon if you look for more papers from these guys you’ll discover a lot more of interest.
You might also enjoy some of my more recent articles on related topics:
- Hacked or not, Ludlam’s a target of spies, ZDNet Australia, 25 January 2012.
- Aus becoming surveillance state: Ludlam, ZDNet Australia, 20 January 2012.
- Hey Facebook, we want to share, but this is ridiculous, Crikey, 23 September 2011.
- Yet another free pass for Aussie spooks, CSO, 16 September 2011.
- Has Facebook killed the undercover cop?, CSO, 25 August 2011.