Big Data in a Small New Hampshire Town

September 4th, 2012

In the digital age, we are all beginning to understand that privacy is little more than a warm, fuzzy 1950s ideal. We now live in a world of Big Data, where bits and pieces of personal information can be combined from many sources to form a detailed picture of our preferences, buying habits and behavior. Online, we are tracked, bundled and sold. We feed Facebook and Google with every detail of our lives, and they sell that data to the highest bidder.
But that is the deal: neat free applications in exchange for private data. Only idealists can expect otherwise. And most of the time, I am more than happy with the deal. I love free email, keeping up with far-flung friends and finding bargains. But when Main Street adopts the same data practices, it sometimes gets scary.
Last week, I stopped into Sears in West Lebanon NH to pick up some sanding disks. Paying in cash at 10:44 a.m., the nice man (associate No. 16733) at the register asked for my phone number. I paused for a moment, considering what that might mean. Of course, I knew that Sears would use that information to track my purchase. I guessed that I would get some sort of reward, a flier in the mail or possibly an unwanted phone call at dinner. But because I study the business use of data, I readily give out private information just to see what will happen. I am my own guinea pig.
So I rattled off my number. My receipt showed that my sale for $7.98 generated 80 “shop your way reward” points, giving me a balance of 947. I didn’t even know I had been collecting reward points or that Sears had a loyalty program.
However, what happened within a few minutes surprised even me. At 10:45 a.m., my wife received an email from sales associate No. 16733 announcing my purchase, carefully itemized: two packs of hook/loop sanding disks. She saw that I paid cash and even how much change I received. Along with the transaction details was an offer for $50 off a refrigerator and recommendations for three other products related to my sanding disks (masking tape, green coating material and more sanding disks).
If this had happened on Amazon, I would have shrugged it off as another funny set of recommendations. We have all purchased items only later to be marketed strange things — like the time my wife purchased a toilet flapper for a repair job I was doing and months later still receives offers for toilet accessories. But this was Sears in West Lebanon! And I had only provided my home phone number. The email went to our family account, which is most closely followed by my wife. What if it had been her birthday present? Or maybe a replacement for that flower pot that I had accidentally cracked that morning and was hoping to replace before she noticed?
Here is the point: I don’t recall ever opting in to Sears connecting my home phone and family email. I didn’t present any loyalty card at the checkout. Unlike Facebook or Google, there was no exchange of personal data for a neat free service. I wasn’t earning miles with my Visa card. I was simply shopping with cash at a local store I have patronized for years. And wham — out came the offer. It was like having the sales attendant lean over the counter and plant a big sloppy kiss right on my lips for spending $7.98! I just didn’t see it coming or want that contact.
Welcome to the world of Big Data, where everyone from your local hair salon to Home Depot is combining and processing years of collected data about you to try to sell you something more. When it is done well, in the context of consenting adults, it can delight. But when done poorly and without consent, it feels more like being groped in a dark parking lot.
This fall the Center for Digital Strategies at Tuck is hosting a series of talks on Big Data that is open to the public. For more information about the series, visit the Britt Series page.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Valley News (9/2/12).

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