The media have been playing “cops and robbers,” trying to track down the location of Edward Snowden, who had fled to Hong Kong and said the U.S. was spying on its citizens.
The citizens are scared and paranoid; visions of Big Brother are peering into their lives.
But, the government’s knowledge of the lives of individuals is little more than the equivalent to a children’s coloring book compared to the library that private companies have on everyone.
Doubt that? Just open your mail any day; chances are good you’ll have more junk mail—the corporations prefer to call it “direct mail”—than anything else. Check your email; if you’re not being spammed hourly, you are probably one of the few people in the U.S. who is living in an underground bomb shelter with no access to the outside world.
And don’t complain. You caused this.
Americans routinely fill out myriad forms that ask all kinds of personal information. Buy an appliance—or just about anything—and some database company learns not just the name, address, and where and when the customer bought that item, but also family income, what pets the family has, and the family’s hobbies. Some “warranty” cards ask more than five dozen questions, the data coded and stored on computers accessible by junk mail advertisers.
Although the data helps companies notify customers about product re-calls or new products, most Americans don’t know they aren’t required to fill out the cards to get warranty protection.
Answer your telephone and respond to someone who claims to be from a “marketing survey company,” and dozens of offers will soon be yours to explore.
The marketing departments of the mass media use databases not only to identify potential subscribers, but also to identify the demographics of their own readers and viewers to potential advertisers.
The first thing scanned at registers in most supermarkets, department stores, discount stores, drug stores, and chain stores of all kinds is the bar-coded membership card that alerts a computer to record and analyze inventory, and track each purchase a customer makes. These cards lure customers to believe they are getting special deals in exchange for giving up their privacy. At its best, it may mean special coupons from manufacturers. At its worst, it means the store sells the data to a health insurance company that raises rates because it determines the customer bought too many bags of potato chips.
With the ubiquitous use of computers, every person who ever bought anything online, or even searched for anything online—product or information—can now be identified, their web addresses stored for use in target marketing campaigns.
Microtargeting, essentially vacuuming every piece of data about every person, is what allows corporations, marketing departments, and sales people to find specific groups of people to add to direct mail and telemarketing campaigns.
If my publisher wished to target audiences for my current book, Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster, she might first get a direct mail list of all environmentalists. Then a sub-set of environmentalists in Pennsylvania. Perhaps, she might also want a tighter list, so she asks for Pennsylvania environmentalists who have purchased at least five books in the past year. She could ask the direct marketing company to drill down even further and get those in select ZIP codes who have a certain income range and are members of certain societies. I suppose it’s possible to target Pennsylvania environmentalists who live in the Marcellus Shale who bought at least five books last year, have a college degree and incomes above $45,000, and drive red convertibles on Sundays. A list of all Pennsylvanians might be a few cents a name; a highly targeted list could be $1 a name.
Certain groups won’t sell their membership lists; others, including most U.S. colleges, are all too happy to get a few hundred dollars by supplying names and demographic details to the marketing companies.
The Republicans, using a program they labeled Voter Vault (now renamed FILPAC), mastered the use of the technology to give them the tools they needed to reach donors and score decisive “get out the vote” strategies in 2002 and 2004 elections. So sophisticated had been the program that they could individually pitch every household with a message crafted to that family. “They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us,” said Terrence R. McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman in 2004. Although both parties used database and data mining technology, the Republicans, said McAuliffe, “were much more sophisticated in their message delivery.”
By 2006, having lost two consecutive presidential elections and having been the minority party for a decade, the Democrats caught up, creating first DataMart and then Data Warehouse. “From an institutional standpoint, this is one of the most important things the DNC can and should do,” Karen Finney, then DNC communications director, told the Washington Post. The cost to create Data Warehouse was expected to be about $10 million.
By the 2008 election, all candidates for presidential office had developed and used databases, with the staff of Barack Obama having the greatest technological skill not only to use social media to get its message to the people, but also to be able to specifically target even the narrowest demographics with specific messages.
Legally, anyone can obtain voluminous data about anyone who has ever registered to vote, owned property, sued, been sued, arrested, served in the military, been married or divorced, licensed by any governmental agency, or even attended a public school. The databases are what help reporters develop stories, some exposing corrupt governmental and business practices.
Almost every American consumer now has a Fair Isaac score. The scores are based upon dozens of reports about a person’s credit history, and are available to Equifax, Experian, and Trans-Union, the three major credit reporting companies. FICO reports that 90 percent of the largest U.S. banks use the Fair Isaac scores. About three-fourth of credit reports contain errors, with about one-fourth of all credit reports containing significant errors that could result in denial of credit, according to the California Public Interest Research Group.
If you’re using any social medium or search engine—Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Google, Pinterest, or anything that is composed not of carbon atoms but bits and bytes—you have been identified.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires businesses to inform individuals why they are denied credit, and be given the opportunity to respond and correct errors on the databases that determine scores.
Unfortunately, the one major downside to the government’s surveillance—there is no such protection for individuals whose incorrect information is on federal databases.
Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster, an in-depth analysis of the effects of fracking upon public health, the environment, worker safety, and agriculture. Dr. Brasch also investigates the history of energy policies in the U.S. and the relationships between the energy companies and politicians at local, state, and federal levels.