What the internet does, and doesn't, know about you

For years, a large data aggregator has quietly, behind the scenes, been gathering your information—as one writer put it “mapping the consumer genome.” Some saw this as rather ominous; others as just curious. But it was, for all of us, mysterious. Until no

This piece originally appeared on the New Republic website.

The world of Big Data is a world of pervasive data collection and aggressive analytics. Some see the future and cheer it on; others rebel. Behind it all lurks a question most of us are asking—does it really matter? I had a chance to find out recently, as I got to see what Acxiom, a large-scale commercial data aggregator, had collected about me.

At least in theory large scale data collection matters quite a bit. Large data sets can be used to create social network maps and can form the seeds for link analysis of connections between individuals.  Some see this as a good thing; others as a bad one—but whatever your viewpoint, we live in a world which sees increasing power and utility in Big Data’s large scale data sets.

Of course much of the concern is about government collection. But it’s difficult to assess just how useful this sort of data collection by the government is because, of course, most governmental data collection projects are classified. The good news, however, is that we can begin to test the utility of the program in the private sector arena—a useful analog in the private sector just became publicly available and it’s both moderately amusing and instructive to use it as a lens for thinking about Big Data.

Acxiom is one of the largest commercial, private sector data aggregators around. It collects and sells large data sets about consumers (sometimes even to the government). And for years it did so quietly, behind the scene—as one writer put it “mapping the consumer genome.” Some saw this as rather ominous; others as just curious.  But it was, for all of us, mysterious.

Until now. In September the data giant made available to the public a portion of its data set. They created a new website—Abouthedata.com—where a consumer (like you or I) could go to see what data the company had collected about him or herself. Of course, in order to access the data about yourself you had to first verify your own identity [I had to send in a photocopy of my driver’s license], but once you had done so, it would be possible to see, in broad terms, what the company thought it knew about you … and how close that knowledge was to reality.

I was curious, so I thought I would go and explore myself and see what it was they knew and how accurate they were.  The results were at times interesting, illuminating, and mundane.  Herewith a few observations:

To begin with, the fundamental purpose of the data collection is to sell me things—that’s what potential sellers want to know about potential buyers and what, say, Amazon might want to know about me.  So I first went and looked at a category called “Household Purchase Data”—in other words what I had bought recently.

It turns out that I buy … well… everything. I buy food, beverages, art, computing equipment, magazines, men’s clothing, stationary, health products, electronic products, sports and leisure products, and so forth. In other words my purchasing habits were, to Acxiom, just an undifferentiated mass. Save for the notation that I had bought an antique in the past and that I have purchased “High Ticket Merchandise,” it seems like almost everything I buy is something that most any moderately well-to-do consumer would buy.

I do suppose that the wide variety of purchases I made is, itself, the point—by purchasing so widely I self-identify as a “good” consumer. But if that’s the point then the data set seems to miss the mark on “how good” I really am. Under the category of “total dollars spent” for example, it said that I had spent just $1898 in the past two years. Without disclosing too much about my spending habits in this public forum I think it is fair to say that this is a significant underestimate of my purchasing activity.

The next data category of “Household Interests” was equally un-illuminating. Acxiom correctly said I was interested in computers; arts; cooking; reading; and the like. It noted that I was interested in children’s items (for my grandkids) and beauty items and gardening (both my wife’s interest, probably confused with mine). Here, as well, there was little differentiation and I assume that the breadth of my interests is what matters rather that the details. So, as a consumer, examining what was collected about me seemed to disclose only a fairly anodyne level of detail.

[Though I must object to the suggestion that I am an Apple user J. Anyone who knows me knows I prefer the Windows OS. I assume this was also the result of confusion within the household and a reflection of my wife’s Apple use. As an aside, I was invited throughout to correct any data that was in error. This I chose not to do, as I did not want to validate data for Acxiom – that’s their job not mine—and I had no real interest in enhancing their ability to sell me to other marketers. On the other hand I also did not take the opportunity they offered to completely opt-out of their data system, on the theory that a moderate amount of data in the world about me may actually lead to being offered some things I want to purchase.]

Things became a bit more intrusive (and interesting) when I started to look at my “Characteristic Data”—that is data about who I am. Some of the mistakes were a bit laughable—they pegged me as of German ethnicity (because of my last name, naturally) when, with all due respect to my many German friends, that isn’t something I’d ever say about myself. And they got my birthday wrong—lord knows why.

But some of their insights were at least moderately invasive of my privacy, and highly accurate.  Acxiom “inferred” for example, that I’m married.  They identified me accurately as a Republican (but notably not necessarily based on voter registration—instead it was the party I was “associated with by voter registration or as a supporter”). They knew there were no children in my household (all grown up) and that I run a small business and frequently work from home.  And they knew which sorts of charities we supported (from surveys, online registrations and purchasing activity).  Pretty accurate, I’d say.

Finally, it was completely unsurprising that the most accurate data about me was closely related to the most easily measurable and widely reported aspect of my life (at least in the digital world)—namely my willingness to dive into the digital financial marketplace.  Acxiom knew that I had several credit cards and used them regularly. It had a broadly accurate understanding of my household total income range [I’m not saying!]

They also knew all about my house—which makes sense since real estate and liens are all matters of public record.  They knew I was a home owner and what the assessed value was.  The data showed, accurately, that I had a single family dwelling and that I’d lived there longer than 14 years. It disclosed how old my house was (though with the rather imprecise range of having been built between 1900 and 1940).  And, of course, they knew what my mortgage was, and thus had a good estimate of the equity I had in my home.

So what did I learn from this exercise?

In some ways, very little.  Nothing in the database surprised me and the level of detail was only somewhat discomfiting. Indeed, I was more struck by how uninformative the database was than how detailed it was—what, after all, does anyone learn by knowing that I like to read? Perhaps Amazon will push me book ads, but they already know I like to read because I buy directly from them. If they had asserted that I like science fiction novels or romantic comedy movies, that level of detail might have demonstrated a deeper grasp of who I am—but that I read at all seems pretty trivial information about me.

I do, of course, understand that Acxiom has not completely lifted the curtains on its data holdings. All we see at About The Data is summary information. You don’t get to look at the underlying data elements. But even so, if that’s the best they can do ….

In fact, what struck me most forcefully was (to borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt) the banality of it all. Some, like me, see great promise in big data analytics as a way of identifying terrorists or tracking disease. Others, with greater privacy concerns, look at big data and see Big Brother. But when I dove into one big data set (albeit only partially), held by one of the largest data aggregators in the world, all I really was, was a bit bored.

Maybe that’s what they wanted as a way of reassuring me. If so, Acxiom succeeded, in spades.

This piece originally appeared on the New Republic website.

Do we know more about the companies, or do they know more about us? Image: Getty
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit