Data mining and You with Natasha Singers
by Juan Lachapelle | published Mar. 16th, 2014
The center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC) hosted a presentation on consumer data mining and management through private companies by Natasha Singers, a New York Times reporter for the Sunday business section. Singer specializes in writing about the business of consumer data. Her presentation discussed the current state of the consumer data business and its striking similarities to various fictional books on advanced societies.
Singer’s biggest assignment on consumer data began two years ago with her article series titled “You for Sale,” which focused on corporations whose jobs are to collect data on consumers in order to sell them to other companies. The series also observed companies that took these data collections and “scored” people based on how relevant individuals were to certain companies. For example, the companies would compute how likely is that an individual would default on their loans and then choose what ads are best fit for this person.
Her interest in data collection began many years ago when she was assigned to report on Russia right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She had to report to the government any time she wanted to go anywhere, her phone calls were openly tapped and she had a spy with her at all times. She took to Russian literature in order to understand this culture of surveillance and read “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Being monitored at all times was normal in the book but it caused the characters to act differently and attempt to never do anything “wrong,” which is what she found herself doing. “It raises questions for me about, ‘Do we want to live in a glass cage?’” asked Singer.
One of the main companies of the “You for Sale” series was Acxiom Corporation. Based in Little Rock, Arkansas, they are the biggest data collectors of consumers in the United States, with information on approximately 500 million people worldwide. The company holds data for 98 percent of all adults in the United States. They provide thousands of points of data on a number of individuals for sale to companies. These practices were kept secret until a recent controversy caused them to make all the data they collect available to anyone on their website. As transparent as they claimed to be, Singer had trouble contacting them for information and even getting her own data that they had collected of her.
Singer compares current data mining practices to recent books like “The Circle” by David Eggers, where the idea that “you shouldn’t be afraid if you have nothing to hide” is a significant theme. Singer stated that the book is about a society where a single company collects the data of everyone in the world through data-mining and its universal social-media site – similar to Facebook.
At one point in the story, people wear cameras on them at all times in order to broadcast their lives to the world and to show they have nothing to hide. Those who refuse to wear the technology are outcasts and are not to be trusted. Singer compared this to new technologies like Google Glass, which can monitor the user and has the ability to broadcast their whereabouts.
The companies collecting these thousands of points of data have more information on the population than most government agencies. Singer left the audience contemplating their future with data collection agencies: “Are we okay with the information asymmetry in society?”