Do you have a Myspace or Facebook page? What about any other social networking or online gathering profile? Did you list your favorite books, movies, music, TV shows? Were you honest about your marital status? What about your sexual preference? How many friends or buddies do you have? Who are your heroes? Tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions-if not a few billion-people worldwide have all expressed their likes and dislikes on publicly accessible web pages. It’s a good way to find people who share your interests. It is an even better way for corporations to specifically market products to you.
It is called data mining by those who view it as an invasion of privacy and an efficient marketing tool by those who don’t. It has been inexistence for millennia, dating all the way back to Roman census takers, and probably long before that. But the information that exists about you has exploded in the 21st century and what you may view as an entirely harmless expression of individuality is really nothing more than a goldmine of information about your consumer identity. Every ten years in America complicated census forms arrive in mailboxes and you are essentially required to turn it in, though I’m not sure if any actual punishment exists should you not. The information on those forms tell a lot more about you and your family than you would expect. But that information is nothing compared to what can be extrapolated from just an average MySpace or Facebook profile.
Sophisticated software exists that allows companies to troll the internet and collect the vast wealth of personal information about each and every one of us. We have been conditioned to become scared to death of the potential for identity theft, though the actual impetus for all the reports you see about this phenomenon seems to have more to do with selling software designed to reduce the risk. Internet users do need to be concerned about putting sensitive information like their Social Security number and credit card numbers and bank account numbers online, but almost nobody even thinks twice about the other stuff commonly found in an online profile form. Think of it this way. What if you were to enter a mall and be presented with the opportunity to provide a list of your favorite consumer products so that each store could individually send you personalized advertising for new products based on what you’ve bought so far? Would you sit down and fill out that card?
There currently exists technology that seems almost futuristic in their ability to not just collect information found in an online profile, but to analyze that seemingly meaningless information and then correlate it with other information about you so that it provides a report on your consumer lifestyle that is far more accurate than an FBI psychological profile for a serial killer suspect. The problem is that there is so very much information about people. Using sophisticated data mining software and techniques any information that can be linked back to you can be collected and analyzed. This means the products you have bought off eBay, the pages you have browsed on Associated Content, the movies you’ve left comments on at IMDB…everything. Through complex associational processing involving such things as online analytical processing a startlingly accurate profile of you can be rather easily produced. These programs can create astonishing leaps of deductive reasoning that would impress Sherlock Holmes by correlating your list of favorite films, your pet peeves, the fact that you only comment on articles you disagree with, that you’ve never bought any clothing online that wasn’t either green or dark brown, that you only watch YouTube videos between 9:30 and 11:45 PM and the fact that every single person in your social network list of friends is under the age of 22. With all the wealth of information you’ve unwittingly left behind as you surf the internet that can all lead easily back to you, there are software programs that have the ability to effectively describe what clothes are in your closet, what food is inside your refrigerator, what CDs are in your collection and even what you will watch on television tomorrow night. And all because you wanted to let the world know a little bit more about you.
It’s worth thinking about the next time you receive junk mail or spam. Ask yourself exactly why you received that particular offer for that particular product from that particular company. This is an important question to ask if the product is something you might actually consider buying. It is even more important to ask if the product is something that you have absolutely no interest in. It is absolutely vital to ask this question if you continually receive advertising for a product or service that has nothing to do with your lifestyle and you are the parent of a child or teenager with unsupervised access to the internet. The answer is probably humming right in front of you.