Data Mining: How Companies Now Know Everything About You

Every detail of your life — what you buy, where you go, whom you love — is being extracted from the Internet, bundled and traded by data-mining companies. What's in it for you?

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Illustration by Joe Zeff for TIME

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Why That Ad Is Following You
Junk mail is a familiar evil that's barely changed over the decades. Data mining and the advertising it supports get more refined every month. The latest trick to freak people out is retargeting — when you look at an item in an online store and then an ad for that item follows you around to other sites.

Last year, Zappos was the most prominent company in the U.S. to go all out in behavioral retargeting. And people got pissed off. One of the company's mistakes was running ads too frequently and coming off as an annoying, persistent salesman. "We took that brick-and-mortar pet peeve and implied it online," says Darrin Shamo, Zappos' director of direct marketing. Shamo learned, the hard way, that people get upset when their computer shows lingerie ads, even if they had been recently shopping for G-strings, since people share computers and use them in front of their kids. He also learned that ads that reveal potential Christmas gifts are bad for business.

Since then, Zappos has been experimenting with new ads that people will see no more than five times and for no longer than eight days. Zappos has also dumbed the ads down, showing items that aren't the ones you considered buying but are sort of close, which people greatly prefer. And much like Amazon's "Customers who bought 1984 also bought Brave New World"–style recommendation engine, the new ads tell people what Zappos knows about them and how they got that information ("a company called Criteo helps Zappos to create these kinds of personalized ads"). It also tells them how they can opt out of seeing them ("Some people prefer rainbows. And others prefer unicorns. If you prefer not to see personalized ads, we totally get it").

If that calms the angry 15% of the people who saw these ads, Zappos will stick with them. Otherwise, it plans on quitting the retargeting business. Shamo thinks he'll just need to wait until the newness wears off and people are used to ads tailored for them. "Sometimes things don't move as fast as you think," he says.

They're not even moving that much faster with the generation that grew up with the Internet. While young people expect more of their data to be mined and used, that doesn't mean they don't care about privacy. "In my research, I found that teenagers live with this underlying anxiety of not knowing the rules of who can look at their information on the Internet. They think schools look at it, they think the government looks at it, they think colleges can look at it, they think employers can look at it, they think Facebook can see everything," says Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who is the director of the Initiative on Technology and Self and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. "It's the opposite of the mental state I grew up in. My grandmother took me down to the mailbox in Brooklyn every morning, and she would say, 'It's a federal offense for anyone to look at your mail. That's what makes this country great.' In the old country they'd open your mail, and that's how they knew about you."

Data mining, Turkle argues, is a panopticon: the circular prison invented by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham where you can't tell if you're being observed, so you assume that you always are. "The practical concern is loss of control and loss of identity," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's a little abstract, but that's part of what's taking place."

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