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Send me more coupons, Target

The news that Target can determine when a shopper is pregnant based on her buying habits has raised privacy concerns. But to find that creepy, we have to believe our personhood comes down to data. If being reduced to data is what it takes to get me coupons, I'm OK with that.

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Flat screen televisions on display at a Target store in Methuen, Mass, in February. Target knows a lot about its shoppers from their buying habits. It can even use "predictive analysis" to determine whether a woman is pregnant, and then market to her. What's so bad about that? asks writer Jim Sollisch.

Elise Amendola/AP

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You’ve probably heard the big news by now: Giant retailers like Target know a lot about you. They know which part of town you live in, what credit cards you carry, what brands you prefer, whether or not you’ve been divorced and – according to a recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine – when a woman is pregnant.

That last bit is the part of the story that gets everyone riled up –  that Target can use predictive analysis to determine when a shopper is pregnant based on her buying habits possibly before she’s even told her coworkers. That seems creepy and Big Brother-ish to people. It seems way too personal.

But how different is it from Target predicting that in late July, I will buy lots of sunscreen and beach gear because my family goes on a beach vacation every August? That doesn’t sound creepy, does it?

Similarly, Target has simply figured out that when women become pregnant, they buy more of certain things: lotion, vitamin supplements, cotton balls. By analyzing shopping purchases, Target can assign a pregnancy prediction score to every shopper. If you score high, Target will send you special offers on things expectant mothers might need.

I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but is Target really sending a special offer to you? Or is it sending a special offer to a set of data points?

It seems to me, that in order to find the pregnancy example creepy, we have to believe that our personhood comes down to data. This is not a trivial point. As we plunge forward into the data-driven future, we will have to determine to what extent data define us as individuals so we can figure out when our privacy is being abused. Not an easy task.

I certainly don’t know where all the lines should be drawn, but it seems to me that predicting my life experiences and offering me relevant coupons is far from approaching the line of violating my civil rights or abusing my privacy. This seems purely transactional.

Of course, if the same predictive analysis were used by an insurance company to drop a woman from coverage before she showed up for prenatal care, that would cross the line. And it would be illegal.

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