In the New York Times, Charles Duhigg takes a creepy look at how Target mines its customer data to predict major life-changes, like pregnancy, so that they can send coupons that guide customers into thinking of Target as the go-to place for all their prenatal and child-rearing needs. The researcher quoted (who was later silenced by his employer) describes the measures the company takes to keep the wily pregosaurs from figuring out that they're being tracked and categorized, tricking them into thinking that the flood of prenatal coupons in the post were just a coincidence. It's grounded in some neuroscience research and the theory is that if you can be guided or coerced into forming automatic "shopping habits" that involve Target, you'll buy things there literally without thinking about it.
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One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store.
Heather Brooke is the American-trained "data journalist" who upended British politics when she moved to the UK and began to use the UK's Freedom of Information law to prise apart the dirty secrets of power and privilege, most notably by exposing the expense cheating by Members of Parliament. Brooke's latest book is The Revolution will be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War, a history of her involvement in the Wikileaks cable-dumps and a meditation on the meaning and role of data-driven journalism in the coming years, as governments ramp up their attempts to lock down the Internet, and journalists, hackers, and activists attempt to open things further.
Brooke is uniquely situated to produce this analysis as someone who was both part of the Cablegate dump and someone who reported on it. She documents her odd and sometimes unpleasant dealings with Assange as well, but the Assange story isn't the most important aspect of Cablegate or this book, and Brooke's focus is thankfully on the broader narrative. This isn't another book that treats the Wikileaks phenomenon as a cult-of-personality story revolving around one person.
Brooke journeys to the hacker scenes in Berlin, San Francisco and Boston, and the radicalized halls of power in Iceland, and spins a story that does a good job of explaining what, exactly, happened with Cablegate: how the cables got out, the intrigues and infighting amongst the players (media, hackers, activists) and the governmental spin in response.
Here is one place where Brooke really opened my eyes: there are many people who make blanket assertions about the US government's manipulation of the press. Read the rest