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Viewpoint 2/22: Is selling our secrets OK?

According to “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” an article published in The New York Times Magazine by staff writer Charles Duhigg last week, the retailer Target found that when a woman is expecting, she will either begin or increase her purchase of certain items, such as scent-free soap, calcium supplements, hand sanitizers and washcloths. Target has charted this data so comprehensively that it is able to estimate a woman’s due date, timing its sending of certain coupons in accordance with pregnancy stages.

One of the statisticians at Target was quoted in the article saying, “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID. We want to know everything we can.”

Corporations are learning there are taboo subjects to mine and exploit, such as pregnancy. Duhigg’s article tells the story of how, one year after Target developed its shopper identifier, a father became irate when he found out Target was sending his daughter coupons for baby items and complained they were encouraging her to get pregnant. He stormed into the store with the coupons and received an apology from the manager, who later on would receive an apology right back. It turned out the daughter was indeed pregnant.

Data mining of consumers has raised privacy concerns in the past, but do people really care? When we receive a coupon booklet with stuff we might actually be interested in, is that so offensive? Selling our information to save on a cool $2 coupon does not sound too sinful. Felix Salmon, opinion writer at Reuters, wrote, “And truth be told, it’s good for consumers to have lots of corporations falling over each other to offer us great prices and great, personalized service.”

In an article titled “Why Should I Care About Digital Privacy?” by Bob Sullivan, a technology correspondent for, most people are apathetic.

“(Privacy expert Larry Ponemon’s) research shows that most U.S. adults — 60 percent — claim they care about privacy but will barely lift a finger in an effort to preserve it. They don’t alter Facebook privacy settings, they don’t complain when supermarkets demand their phone numbers and they certainly don’t insist on encrypted e-mail.”

But some people have been creeped out. In his article, Duhigg quoted a Target executive who said, “And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”

But in the end, what’s the harm? As of right now, there does not seem to be much. However, hypothetical consequences have been raised. In The New York Times Magazine interview, “Behind the Cover Story: How Much Does Target Know?” Duhigg cites women who might have miscarriages but still receive the pregnancy coupons as “a tragic” blowback. Also, such data-mining technology could also fall into the wrong hands. Say, for example, Barnes & Noble began mailing coupons and suggestions to a house shared by several roommates for someone who purchased a book about recovering from pornography addiction. We would like to believe corporations would be sensitive to such situations.

“President Obama just hired a habits expert who used to consult for grocery stores on this stuff to diagnose and learn how to trigger individuals’ voting habits,” said Duhigg in the interview. “This science is just science, just a tool. It can be used for good or in ways that make us uncomfortable.”

Perhaps Target foresees the consequences, as we are now experiencing radio silence from them concerning the issue. According to Duhigg, the company has gone as far as asking him to leave its headquarters, saying he is on its list of “prohibited visitors.”

Perhaps Target is on the right track. An article published yesterday morning on The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch website revealed that Target is rated among the top 20 retailers for customer experience in retail. Well, Target, some of us here at The Signpost still love you, too.

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