Two Breaking Stories Make Privacy Issues Embarrassingly Public

Psssst. Here’s a not-so-well-kept, but seemingly oft-ignored secret: If you try a double-reverse end-run around people’s privacy, there’s a good chance somebody’s going to spot the duplicitous maneuver and throw you for a loss. Cases in point: a couple of breaking stories this morning.

Let’s start with the lede sentence of the cover piece in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, which was published on the newspaper’s website Thursday: “Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: ‘If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?’”

Oh boy, could he ever. And, before he was told to shut up by his more reticent bosses, Pole seems to have spilled his bean-counting soul to staff writer Charles Duhigg, whose The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business will be published on Feb. 28. The marketing folks evidently told the self-confessed “math nerd” that “new parents are a retailer’s Holy Grail.”



Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Julia Angwint and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries disclose that Google and others have found a way to bypass the privacy settings of people who are using Apple's Safari browsing software on their Mac computers or iOS mobile devices. The browser, they inform us, “is designed to block such tracking by default.”

The practice was uncovered by a Stanford researcher and confirmed by an adviser to the Journal. For those of you with a technical bent, the Journalexplains exactly what Google did here –- and it sure doesn’t look like serendipity. The editors have also prepared a helpful infographic –- replete with the image of a gent in sleeveless V-neck sweater vest a la Rick Santorum, for all you cutting-edge fashion-watchers -- browsing his laptop in a retro lounge chair.

Google had issued a statement, the Journal reports, in which it claims that the story “mischaracterizes what happened and why.” It goes on to say, “We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

“This is the latest in a string of concerns over Google's privacy policy, all of which seem to fly in the face of [its] own maxim "Don't be evil," blogs Jamie Condliffe on GizModo, while pointing out that Google has disabled the feature on its servers and Apple says it is "working to put a stop" to the practice.

In addition to Google, three other online ad companies use similar techniques, according to the Journal report: Vibrant Media, WPP's Media Innovation Group and Gannett's PointRoll. Vibrant says the practice is a "workaround" to "make Safari work like all the other browsers." Gannett characterized its use of workaround coding as a “limited test.” WPP did not comment.

Back to Target. The gist of the story is that once we consumers get into a groove, it’s pretty hard to get us to change our habits –- as good as any ad campaign may be. But there are certain times in our lives “when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux.” And that, my good friends with gimcracks and geegaws up your sleeves, is when you want to entice us with your very best wares and wiles. (Yes, it’s good old “life stage marketing,” as my old friends at Evergreen Direct lay out in this primer, and both parenting and grand parenting are among those disrupting times.)

Duhigg writes that Duke University researchers estimate that “habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45% of the choices we make every day, and recent discoveries have begun to change everything from the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for anxiety, depression and addictions.”

But as the story reveals, there is indeed “a calculus … for mastering our subconscious urges.” (Once you trot out the word calculus, of course, 97% of us nod in agreement without having the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.) And, of course, this involves the equally mysterious “data sets” and “algorithms,” which may be why “mathematicians are suddenly sexy,” as the former chief scientist at is quoted as averring.

I will not give away the rest of the plot, which involves characters like chocolate-seeking rats in an M.I.T. laboratory, as well as insights into how Procter & Gamble “used habit insights to turn a failing product into one of its biggest sellers” (okay, it’s Febreze), but I recommend that you curl up with the story as soon as you’ve put the little shaver in the crib this evening and entertained yourself with Joe Queenan’s send up of all the new books on ethnic parenting techniques --  “Why Italian Moms Are the Best” –- which was published Wednesday in the Journal.

Have a great long weekend, and Presidents Day. We’ll see you Tuesday.

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