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Data Mining Your Pizza Order

Friday, February 10, 2006

It seems simple enough. You're in Safeway or Albertson's or Wal-Mart and they say to you, "If you'll sign up for our member's card, we can save you an additional X% on your purchases. If you then use the card in the future, you can again save money by taking advantage of unadvertised discounts." Sounding like a great deal, you immediately sign up.

Months pass and you've been faithfully shopping at all your favorite stores. By now, you've registered with almost every one of those favored retailers. The savings you realize from using your member cards must add up to a couple hundred dollars by now. What a great program... Or is it?

What if I told you the government, your government, was looking over the shoulder of Wal-Mart or whomever to see what kinds of purchases you've been making? If you think they're not doing this, you're wrong. Mark Clayton of The Christian Science Monitor wrote an article that looks at this very subject. From his article, US Plans Massive Data Sweep, he writes:

The US government is developing a massive computer system that can collect huge amounts of data and, by linking far-flung information from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports, search for patterns of terrorist activity.

The system - parts of which are operational, parts of which are still under development - is already credited with helping to foil some plots. It is the federal government's latest attempt to use broad data-collection and powerful analysis in the fight against terrorism. But by delving deeply into the digital minutiae of American life, the program is also raising concerns that the government is intruding too deeply into citizens' privacy.

In my opinion, this is definitely intruding too deeply into citizens' privacy. This method of data collection would be like them riding around on your shoulder reporting on every little action you do. Let me put it this way. If you interact with any computers, whether it be a cash register or an ATM or a camera, you're leaving digital footprints that can be followed. As an example, my wife had a tire problem with her car the other day. She called me and asked for my assistance. If the government wanted to, they could reconstruct my movements while I dealt with this event. Here's how I suspect they would see it unfold:

  • At around 9:40AM, I returned her phone call to see what she needed. She informed me that her tire was bad and wanted me to help her fix it.
  • I phoned one local tire store and asked about some tires for her car. They said they would get back to me. That was about 10:00 AM.
  • At about 10:30 AM, I phoned another local tire store. They also said they would get back to me. (During those conversations with the two tire stores, I told them what had happened, my phone number, what type of car my wife drives, what tire size she needed, and what time I needed it by. The last bit may seem odd, but if you're watching me and want to know where I'll be at any given time, that's a big hint.)
  • After two returned phone calls and two more to my brother on his cell phone, I rounded up a couple of new tires. I won't tell you where I got them, I'll let you figure it out.
  • Before driving the thirty some miles to where my wife works, I stopped to get gas. I stuck my Bank Card into the automated pump machine, keyed in my PIN, and dispensed some fuel into my vehicle. This was about 4:40 PM.
  • I arrived in the parking lot of my wife's employer. I transferred the new tires to her trunk and drove the two blocks to a tire store. The service man changed my tires and then wrote me a bill on their computer, which included my name, address, and phone number. I paid him with my Bank Card. This was around 5:30PM.

By handing over my information, whether it be given verbally or electronically, we are exposing ourselves to the world and any prying eyes. My whole day could be recreated because I was interacting with these machines all around us. Again from Mark's article:

"We don't realize that, as we live our lives and make little choices, like buying groceries, buying on Amazon, Googling, we're leaving traces everywhere," says Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We have an attitude that no one will connect all those dots. But these programs are about connecting those dots - analyzing and aggregating them - in a way that we haven't thought about. It's one of the underlying fundamental issues we have yet to come to grips with."

And that's why I had to laugh when I ran across this little demonstration on another blog. It was billed as a Phone Call from the not-to-distant future. Click this image and watch it. It'll make you think about who you give your personal information to in the future.

Pizza Palace


Blogger Mark said...

Stop worrying, Don, it's already too late. The feds have a list of all us anti-government types. When the next terrorist attack occurs or the next war starts, they'll make it known to us that we're in some kind of danger from them - they may ban our web sites, arrest us on "suspicion", search our houses and computers for "subversive" stuff. Be happy now.

1:55 PM  

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