The sophistication of information gleaned from "big data" has reached such a level that it is starting to impinge on privacy, warns Menno van Doorn, a director at VINT Research, which is part of the Sogeti IT services company.
Van Doorn was speaking at Computing's IT Leaders' Forum in London this week, which asked, "Does big data spell the end of business intelligence?"
Doorn highlighted the case at retail chain Target in the US, which had asked its in-house statistician Andrew Pole to identify life changing events that it could use to better target customers with offers. In particular, Pole was asked to find out whether customers that had become pregnant could be identified from their shopping patterns.
"So, he first looked at the people who had given birth, because you can see that from what they have bought, go back nine months and see what they had been buying before," said Doorn. "From the data, there was a bucket of 25 products from which he found he could predict whether or not a customer was pregnant and almost the date of giving birth."
Target then used this information to target customers.
The downside, though, was graphically illustrated when an angry father went into a Target store in Minneapolis to demand an explanation from the manager about the coupons for baby clothes that his daughter had started to receive from the store. Why, he wanted to know, was the company trying to encourage his daughter to become pregnant?
Promising an explanation within the week, when the manager called the customer to explain the father was very much more subdued. "I had a talk with my daughter," he said. "It turns out there's been some activities in my house I haven't been completely aware of. She's due in August. I owe you an apology," he reportedly told the manager.
That followed on from the discovery that sending customers an unsolicited ‘Congratulations on your first child!' cards with a baby catalogue freaked people out - and then there was the scope for scandal should any disaster have befallen the young family that hadn't been picked up by its analytics.
As such, some shop loyalty schemes deliberately include vouchers for items they know customers will not be interested in so that customers will not realise how closely their shopping habits are being tracked.