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Card swiping & electronic consumer DNA

POSTED December 20, 2013 5:49 p.m.

I spend anywhere from $80 to $120 a week at Target now that I do a good chunk of my grocery shopping there.
Each time I pass through the checkout the cashier asks if I have a Target REDcard and, if not, if I would like to apply for one. The pitch includes a 5 percent off on purchases at Target.
It’s tempting. It would save me $5 a week or $260 a year. I would not be subject to interest if I pay the balance off within 25 days. As an added bonus Target would give 1 percent of my purchase to a local school that I designate.
By industry standards it is a pretty impressive and generous program.
Even so, I always politely say no.
I don’t like the fact that Target can collect a lot of information about me not just for their use but other firms as well.
I’m not paranoid. I just don’t need computer programs profiling me based on my purchases.
Even without using a store card, Target is already profiling me to a small degree. Cash register coupons are no longer printed en mass to all people. 
True, some coupons are tied directly to the exact product you just purchased. I bought Beggin’ Strips for my dogs on the last trip and got a coupon discount offer for the same product. Sometimes you’ll get a coupon for a store version of a product you purchased. Most of the time they are for products a computer program has determined I’m likely to buy based on my purchases that day. I hit the cash register jackpot on Saturday. My purchases managed to generate six coupons. The lady in front of me spent more than I did but only got two coupons.
Computer programs are effective at profiling as long as you don’t deviate too far from the herd.
Even I was surprised, though, to read that pharmaceutical companies looking for sick folks to participate in new drug studies hire data mining companies such as Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide to glean data to find consumers who have a high propensity to fit profiles of people who have specific illnesses such as arthritis.
They do this without violating the information privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). Instead they glean through credit card and other electronic records to find purchases that mirror the habits of those often found in people with certain types of ailments. More often than not, the majority of the names produce people with the ailment they are looking for making the drug company’s marketing effort as targeted as possible without violating HIPPA requirements.
Here’s a quick rundown of what some purchases may tell a firm such as Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide:
•If you have a large cable TV package you are less likely to be active and tend to be overweight.
•If you own a dog you are less likely to be overweight as dogs require frequent walks.
•If you have a history of buying clothes online you might be obese as overweight people, have a harder time finding the right fitting clothes in stores.
•If you have a minivan but don’t have children it may be an indication you are too large to fit into a smaller vehicle.
These are just a few of the conclusions firms such as Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide reach based on data.
They use everything you purchase on credit cards from magazines, the trips you take and how much money you spend to how often you buy running shorts to create a profile of you and your likelihood to have traits associated with people with specific types of ailments or healthy lifestyle practices. 
Profiling people by their purchases and/or associations is nothing new. But there is a growing concern as computer programs sweep large amounts of consumer data they may create a profile on individuals that — whether accurate or not — could be used to deny people everything from employment to membership.
Given the National Security Administration’s drag net and the information we voluntarily give away every time we swipe many of the plastic cards we carry, it is more than disconcerting. The possibility exists to black ball you falsely. The bytes of information we give up essentially are an electronic DNA that a computer fed a program crafted using various variables can use to reach broad determinations on everything from our politics and behavior to our health.
If that doesn’t scare you, then you’ve already embraced Big Brother.
How wrong can they be? I drive a hybrid. I do a lot of hiking. I spend a lot of money on racing bicycles and exercise equipment. I eat a lot, and I mean a lot, of yogurt.
Just on those few consumer facts a firm such as Blue Chip Worldwide Marketing would conclude I do a lot of shopping in health food stores, I’m a hardcore environmentalist, and I am more than likely a Democrat.
Believe it or not, research firms believe mountain bikers tend to be Republicans and road racers tend to be Democrat.
For the record, I have never shopped in a health food store, I’m not exactly a hardcore environmentalist and I’m a registered Republican.
Given the fact the cat is already out of the bag and they’ve identified me as erroneously as possible I might just take the Target clerk up on their offer next time.
I can’t obviously stop the profiling based on what should be inconsequential purchases so I might as well save money off of them being wrong.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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