Reading07: Data gathering isn’t always good… but it’s not always bad, either

Reading07: Data gathering isn’t always good… but it’s not always bad, either

I’m honestly not sure how to judge the use of data gathering/mining in order to sell customers goods and services. There is definitely a point that goes too far, but there’s also a degree that is logical and necessary for a company to function well. How do we draw a line between these two? When does a company go too far?

It seems fitting and necessary for a company to aggregate data one their customers that are directly pertinent to their business. I wouldn’t begrudge a supermarket for tracking my purchases and using my purchasing habits to send me coupons or alert me on deals I’m interested in. That seems fitting and logical.

However, I’m less sure about the practice of seeking out/buying additional data on consumers, even if it’s pursuant to the goals of the company. For example, when Target sought out extra data on their customers to determine who was pregnant, in order to send them targeted advertising. This is clearly in line with their “greedy strategy” – they’re doing their best to maximize their sales and profits, and capture the spending habits of additional people. But, and I think I’m far from alone in this, something feels a bit off. To have this corporate giant purchasing information about me that’s not really relevant in order to sell me things? That doesn’t feel quite right.

My initial thoughts are that the issue arises when the company seeks out and purchases additional data on people. Data gathered in the course of doing business is, in my opinion, pretty uncontroversially “fair game”. But should companies be able to purchase additional, seemingly unrelated information about us?

To say that data brokers should be abolished and are across-the-board unethical is a bit naïve. On one hand, when there is money to be made from doing this (and there clearly is), it’s not as if it’s going to stop easily. On the other, though… aren’t we deriving benefit from this?

If a pregnant woman is preparing to have a child, and receives coupons and deals from Target, isn’t she drawing benefit? Maybe money is tight, and they really make a difference. Is it so wrong for Target to benefit from this knowledge, if they’re providing a service? We’ve all benefited from the growing interconnectedness of different parts of our lives, often in ways that we don’t even think about.

To me, a large part of the concern is in what happens to personal data, and how it’s handled. Hacks and data breaches happen, and the more companies that have our personal data, the more it’s been spread around, the more opportunities there are for it to get out to people whose intentions might be less above-board, might be seeking to benefit from our loss. If there was a guarantee that the information was completely secure, would we care as much? What if Target had, after figuring out who was pregnant and acting on it, immediately deleted all the data it had gathered? Why does that feel less objectionable?

Data gathering and analysis is never going to go away. There are definitely degrees that are too much, and there should be an obligation to protect the personal information that is gathered. However, we do at times derive very real benefit from these practices. Maybe this is just the reality of the increasingly connected world we live in.