Hiding a pregnancy from Big Data might get you flagged as a criminal.




A friend of mine sent me an interesting read this morning: a Mashable story on Princeton sociology professor Janet Vertesi’s mission to prevent marketers from discovering her pregnancy. The manner of methods by which she evaded detection are striking reminders of how embedded in our daily lives are the means of personal data collection–and retrieval.

By now, most people have at least a general understanding of what data mining is and how marketers collect and trade in mined personal data in order to create micro-targeted advertisements for consumers. What they may not know is which consumers retail marketers value over others: new parents. Charles Duhigg, a reporter for the New York Times, broke this story in 2012:

“Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.

“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.

To say Vertesi had to go out of her way to avoid alerting retailers to her pregnancy is to grossly understate her effort. Matt Petronzio, writing for Mashable:

“First, Vertesi made sure there were absolutely no mentions of her pregnancy on social media, which is one of the biggest ways marketers collect information…She also made sure to only use cash when buying anything related to her pregnancy, so no information could be shared through her credit cards or store-loyalty cards. For items she did want to buy online, Vertesi created an Amazon account linked to an email address on a personal server, had all packages delivered to a local locker and made sure only to use Amazon gift cards she bought with cash.”

She even went as far as using Tor for invisible browsing. Such successful evasion comes at an admittedly awkward price, however:

Vertesi said that by dodging advertising and traditional forms of consumerism, her activity raised a lot of red flags. When her husband tried to buy $500 worth of Amazon gift cards with cash in order to get a stroller, a notice at the Rite Aid counter said the company had a legal obligation to report excessive transactions to the authorities.”

Read the full article and check out the nifty video of Vertesi’s presentation at the Theorizing the Web conference here.


4 thoughts on “Hiding a pregnancy from Big Data might get you flagged as a criminal.

  1. WOW. I actually remember that article from the New York Times… this is pretty telling. “She wondered if a time will ever come when we can opt out of giving personal information to the Internet…” I doubt it.

  2. Sadly, I agree with you. I feel like the personal data industry is yet another case of technology staying too far ahead of ethics discussions and subsequent regulation.

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