To nobody’s surprise, Facebook, just like any other entity selling you stuff, or selling you to people who sell you stuff is trying to connect more and more sets of previously unconnected data. This particular case deals with brick and mortar store data that is linked with customers’ email addresses and loyalty cards.
Facebook will be using Datalogix to prepare reports for its advertisers about who, if anyone, bought more of their stuff after they ran ads on the social network. But by matching your Facebook profile with your CVS bill, this means that Facebook has the potential to know some of your most intimate details (my, that’s a lot of bunion cream you’re buying!), and the privacy concerns are enormous. When DoubleClick attempted something similar to this, user-backlash ultimately led them to cancel the project.
Corporations (more than government, open data activists!) have been deep mining our data for years. It is part of creating the information asymmetry that enables profits to be made. You may remember this story about Target (coming to Canada as soon as we can learn to say Tarjay) and how they outed a teen’s pregnancy.
About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
Companies’ ability to reduce us to a shopping probability statistic is only going to get better as they learn to connect more of our data and computing gets faster. Can regulation keep up? Can customer outrage keep up with companies offering us coupons to keep us temporarily happy as impulse centres in our brain are carefully triggered for profit? Can customer outrage even keep up with the barrage of occurrences?
I don’t think we can keep up. So, I want my data. I want information on what I bought, when I bought it, where I bought it in a standardized open data format. No, not a paper receipt, not a paper receipt scanner, but something that can be beamed to my phone, or emailed to me. I want to know when I buy coffee. Can I correlate my shopping habits with my mood? Do I buy more random electronics when I need a pick me up? What is the spread in the price I paid for my favourite cereal? Do some stores price it differently on Wednesdays? I want apps that can mine my data and tell me where to buy my cereal, or when not to buy. I want apps that can tap into a product database and give me a carbon footprint, or a fair trade pass/fail, or a local product breakdown.
Also, I do not want to re-enter the same bits of data multiple times and increase error. A payment made to my dentist should be sent directly to my extended health “insurance” provider for a refund. It should also go to my tax receipts virtual pile and await reimbursement. Any tax deductions can easily be tagged and directly entered into my tax preparation software at the end of the year. if I want to expense something for work, I should just be able to tag them and send them along. I can’t imagine how much time and effort this will save in error checking, manual entry, auditing, so much more.
Some of this is possible with systems like Mint, but they operate on a payment level, not on a line item level.
The new mobile payment system Square (not in Canada yet) shows some potential, so does Intuit’s GoPayment, which is available in Canada. But these payment systems emphasize ease of payment on both sides of the transaction, not the ability to mine our own data.
Can this happen via the market with no regulatory push? I don’t see how. Reducing information asymmetry is not in corporations’ interest. So it will have to be regulated. You have our data, just give it to us.
Not to mention, this is the “free market” way to go. Think of all the innovation that can be unleashed on the consumer side. Think of the apps that can provide better financial advice, the apps that can collate data at city/regional level and help consumers make better decisions.
Will companies have to spend money to make this happen? Yes. This will not be challenging for larger companies who already spend millions deep-mining our data. What about small business? This is where small tweaks to new systems like Square or GoPayment can be the game changer. Square already charges less for a swipe than a typical Visa transaction. So, I would see local business as saving money. When I buy local, I usually feel a bit more connection with the product. Imagine seeing my decision reinforced by data from Receipt 2.0. Small local business cannot data mine, but can generate enough goodwill with local consumers to get access to their data. Unlike Target, when my corner soap store does something unethical with my data, they cannot survive the bad publicity.
Are there privacy concerns? Yes. But our privacy is already compromised the minute we pay anything other than cash, or use the internet (Tor users, stop smirking). Good regulation can address most concerns.
My information is being used to make me a consume more, I want it to make me a better “consumer”. Open data efforts have focused intensely on public and government data, while privacy activists have tried unsuccessfully to stop private data gathering. I would like open data advocates to look carefully at liberating corporate mined data as well.
Featured Image courtesy the Culturally Authentic Picture Lexicon used under a creative commons licence.