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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What male contraceptives are scientists working on? And how soon can we use them?

The male Pill, the male coil, and a medication made from papaya seeds. 

When you think about it, male contraception makes more logical sense than female contraception: to put it bluntly, it’s safer to unload a gun than to shoot at a bullet-proof vest. 

Yet scientists have found it harder – or have been more reluctant – to control a million sperm a day than a single egg a month, and so there are, to date, ten different types of contraception available for women and only two (condoms and vasectomy) currently available for men.

This places a tremendous amount of pressure on women to avoid pregnancy. But it’s not just women calling for more options for their partners: men are demanding more control over their reproductive ability, too. A study published in the journal Human Reproduction indicated that around half of men would be open to using a male contraceptive, while three in eight wanted to know more information first.

Aaron Hamlin, executive director of the Male Contraceptive Initiative, tells me that this may be an underestimate: “[The researchers] asked about a hormonal contraceptive. Had the survey asked about a non-hormonal contraceptive, the acceptability may have been even higher due to the lower likelihood of side effects and potentially faster onset of action.” Hamlin is very clear that “contraception isn’t an either/or equation between men and women”, but its development for men has been slowed by a lack of funding:  

“Drug development is expensive. And if governments and philanthropists are interested in people being able to control their family sizes and futures, then they need to start taking funding for male contraceptive development seriously. The pill for women was funded practically single-handedly by philanthropist Katharine McCormick.  So far, there has been no modern-day Katharine McCormick for the male pill.”

There are, however, many male contraceptive options in the works. So what are they? And when will they be available?

On the way soon

Vasalgel: a sperm barrier

What is it? A hydrogel, which is a network of polymers suspended in a water-based gel. They’re quite flexible; much like the body’s natural tissue.

How does it work? Sperm are produced in the testes and then transported through a duct called the vas deferens. Vasalgel is injected into this duct, where it creates a semi-permeable barrier that allows fluid through, but not sperm. Vasalgel is reversible and works for up to a year, after which sperm flow returns almost immediately, or it can be removed by another injection that simply flushes it out of the system.

How soon can we use it?  Human trials are due to begin at the end of 2016 and men should be able to get the injection by 2018. Rights for the gel are owned by the non-profit organisation Parsemus Foundation which was started by Elaine Lissner, who while at Stanford University became frustrated by the almost-exclusive pressure on women to sort out contraception.

The male Pill

How does it work? This contraceptive is, rather amusingly, known as the “clean-sheets” pill for its ability to prevent fluid ejaculation. The pill relaxes the longitudinal muscles of the vas deferens whilst still allowing contraction of its circular muscles. This stops the sperm from being pushed out, but still allows orgasmic function. The blocking of fluid ejaculate also helps prevent the spread of some STIs.

How soon can we use it? The side effects of the major component of the drug, phenoxybenzamine, currently include dizziness, drowsiness, nasal congestion, stomach upset and tiredness. (It’s worth noting though that these are all common side effects of the pill for women.) However, researchers at King’s College London and University College London have created a prototype that evades these problems and together, they are now seeking funding to start trials of the pill on rams.

Intra Vas Device (IVD): the male coil

What is it? Like an inter-uterine device (IUD), or coil, for women, IVDs are inserted into the men's vas deferens and block sperm from moving down into the ejaculate.

How does it work? There are two types in development. The first, made in the US, involves inserting two sets of tiny, flexible silicone plugs into each vas deferens so that there is a space between the two plugs for the sperm to store. Researchers say the plugs can’t be felt by the patient, and the procedure is effectively like getting a vasectomy, but without cutting your tubes. 

The second, developed in China, is a flexible urethane tube with one end closed which is implanted into each vas deferens. Each tube is lined with a nylon mesh that acts as a sieve to collect sperm. A tiny hole at the closed end of the tube allows fluid, but not sperm to pass through, preventing the build-up of pressure that is often associated with a vasectomy.

Both procedures don’t require a scalpel and take less than twenty minutes to perform under general anesthetic. There are lower levels of side-effects compared to a vasectomy too, and reversal is thought to be a fast, out-patient procedure.

How far is it in development? Both types of IVD are currently undergoing human trials, which means they could be available within the next several years.  

On the horizon

Herbal contraception

What is it? Researchers in Indonesia have managed to isolate the active ingredient in a shrub called Gendarussa to make a contraceptive pill. Local tribesmen and villagers on the island of Papua have been boiling the plant and drinking it as a tea half an hour before sex for generations now.

How does it work? Upon contact with an egg, sperm secrete an enzyme that allows them to break through the surface. Scientists at the Airlangga University in Indonesia have discovered that this plant is able to inhibit this enzyme whilst not affecting sperm count, mobility or sexual pleasure.

How soon can we use it?  The pills have just passed Phase II of clinical trials and following a third, the drug could go onto the market in Indonesia. To reach the UK, however, the pill would need to undergo more clinical trials to meet our health test standards.

Heat, part one 

What is it? We all learned in school biology lessons that the testes rest at a cooler temperature than the rest of the body in order to allow sperm production. Logically then, it follows that increasing the temperature of them will lower if not stop sperm production.

How does it work? Known as “wet heat”, this method was first investigated in 1946 by Dr Marthe Voegeli in India in a study with only nine volunteers. Keeping the testes in a testes-only bath for 45 minutes daily for three weeks resulted in six months of sterility. The tests’ success meant that the practice was used widely during a famine in India and children born after it had no abnormalities. It is easily reversible, can be used multiple times and is non-surgical. However, Voegeli’s conclusions were never taken seriously at the time, in part because she was a woman.

How soon can we use it?  It is now being explored as an option of "booster" contraception for men. Hot packs, heating pads and over-the-counter fertility packs to check sperm count are now becoming available.

Heat, part two

How does it work? The second option, Cryptorchidism, mimics "Cryptorchid", or the condition of undescended testicles. Both the testes and their temperature are raised by a pair of underwear that contains a ring which hoists the testes up close to the canal through which they ascend in Cryptorchid. This increases their temperature through their proximity to the body, and the soft ring of material holding them in place reduces fertility and the sperm’s mobility. This is a reversible method that allows for the return of fertility in twelve to eighteen months.

How soon can we use it?  So far, only short term tests of one to four years have been conducted. Longer-term tests on a larger scale would show whether men who still want to have children in later life can do so after the treatment or not. Scientists are also worried that the treatment could increase the risk of testicular cancer.

Carica Papaya: the seed contraceptive

What is it? Seeds of a carica papaya haven been commonly eaten by men for many a generation in parts of South East Asia.

How soon can we use it? In the first study conducted on this, an extract of papaya seeds was fed to rats, resulting in decreased semen and a one hundred per cent efficacy, but with less than ideal side effects - due to the extract’s toxicity, the rats experienced dramatic weight loss. A chloroform extract of seeds tested on monkeys, however, caused low sperm production, no toxicity, no change in testosterone levels and full recovery within five months. If human trials go as well, we might soon start seeing men on the tube scoffing papaya seeds.

A bit of a pipe dream

Ultrasound

How does it work? Scientists believe ultrasound could be used to reduce men’s fertility temporarily, but they’ve yet to make it work in humans. The Parsemus Foundation funded a study on it on humans at the University of North Carolina and another in Italy on the sterilisation of dogs with ultrasound.

It was found that simply three applications for five minutes each with breaks of 48 minutes rendered dogs permanently sterile. Only one man was tested on and he found that even after exposure to ultrasound for ten days for twenty to thirty minutes, his fertility returned after just a few months.

How soon can we use it? Funding of this method has dried up given the poor results so far, though ultrasound is readily available online for men who wish to try it themselves (a science background is recommended though) and in doctor’s and physical therapist’s offices around the world.

Neem: the tree contraceptive

What is it? The Neem tree is native to India and was used as a male contraceptive in ancient times.

How does it work? For long-term contraception, a small amount of Neem oil injected into the vas deferens seems to provide eight months of contraception with no change in testosterone levels. In the 1980s it was found that Neem leaf tablets provided reversible male infertility but with no change in sperm production or libido in monkeys.

How far is it in development? Further study is still needed. Men in many rural parts of India however, continue to take the herb, apparently with the desired effects.

Adjudin/Gamandazole: derivatives anti-cancer medication 

What is it? Lonidamine, an anticancer medication, was found to cause infertility but at the expense of kidney damage at high doses. Scientists searching for a drug similar to Lonidamine discovered Adjudin and Gamandazole.

How does it work? In New York, a non-profit called the Population Council dedicated to finding more options for male contraception, discovered that Adjudin disrupts the process of sperm maturation in the testes by blocking the hormone that enables this and researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Centre found that Gamandazole does the same by preventing the sperm from developing its head and tail.

How soon can we use it? Adjudin researchers are still trying to find ways to improve its delivery into the body while Gamendazole, although promising, still has to undergo human testing and it will be several years before it’s available at the doctor’s office.