ExpressVPN’s #WTFWednesday brings you weird, shocking, and creepy stories about data privacy—pulled straight from the news. Think your privacy is yours? Think again. You will feel uncomfortable. You will be outraged. You will think, “WTF?!”
You really thought your secrets were yours to keep, didn’t you?
Well, sorry. In the age of big data and minimal privacy, your secrets belong to corporations. Corporations with enough information about you to decode your buying habits in scary ways. To compare the patterns of your mundane little life against millions of other customers. To know more about you than your best friend, your significant other, or even your own parents.
Oh, you didn’t want your parents to be your number one confidants anyway? Well that’s too bad as well. Or at least, it was too bad for one Minneapolis high school student who bought cocoa-butter lotion and magnesium tablets at Target with her credit card.
For her – let’s call her Sara – for Sara, the cat was out of the diaper bag. The jig was up. Sara’s secret – that she had gotten pregnant – had been unlocked by the data analysts at Target.
And for Sara, as well as her dad, things were about to get really, really creepy.
We Want To Know Everything
“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years.
“We want to know everything we can.
“As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too… Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”
That’s Andrew Pole, a data analyst at Target, speaking to a New York Times journalist shortly before his employer silenced Pole and barred the NY Times features author from its offices.
He’s talking about pregnant women – including teenagers – and the data Target collects every time one of its 70 million customers buys something with their credit card.
When you put all of those millions of purchase records together and analyse them, strange patterns emerge. Patterns like: when a woman suddenly starts to buy cocoa-butter lotion and magnesium supplements (just as Sara did), there’s a very high chance that she’s pregnant.
With all of its masses of customer data, Target can even predict the month the baby is due.
What happens when Target’s big data system identifies a pregnant lady? It automatically mails out a coupon book with discounts for diapers and more. So that the corporation can “capture them for years.”
That’s exactly what happened to Sara. And that was the end of her pregnancy secret. Target had crept in on her most private, most vulnerable moment. And before she had the chance to decide for herself about what to do next, Target’s pregnancy discounts mailer landed in the wrong hands.
Let’s say it was a bright winter morning. Sara’s father walked into a Target store in Minneapolis and demanded to speak to the manager.
“Why the hell are you sending coupons for cribs and diapers to my teenage daughter?” he demanded to know. “Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
The manager was a little embarrassed. Uncertain what had happened or why, all he could do was apologize.
But Andrew Pole, the Target data analyst who originally told this whole story, knew why. And it’s just as you’ve already guessed.
Target knew Sara was pregnant before she had told another living person. And through its invasive data and marketing systems, the corporation had taken her privacy away.
Target isn’t alone, either. Every big retail chain wants to collect your data, and they all analyze buying habits to learn more about you. Some are subtler about it than others, but they’re all doing it.
So if you thought your secrets were yours to keep? Maybe your favorite stores already know them!
That’s all from us for this week’s edition of #WTFWednesday. Did this story make you think, “WTF?” Share it with someone you love. Let them know you care.
Like this post? Hate it? Read more horror stories about the invasion of your privacy in our #WTFWednesday archive. You know you can’t resist…