Bioethics Blogs

Mental Privacy in the Age of Big Data

By Jessie Ginsberg
Jessie Ginsberg is a second year student in the Master of Arts in Bioethics program and a third year law student at Emory University. 

A father stood at the door of his local Minneapolis Target, fuming, and demanding to speak to the store manager. Holding coupons for maternity clothes and nursing furniture in front of the manager, the father exclaimed, “My daughter got this in the mail! She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
Target was not trying to get her pregnant. Unbeknownst to the father, his daughter was due in August.  
In his February 16, 2012 New York Times article entitled, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” Charles Duhigg reported on this Minneapolis father and daughter and how companies like Target use marketing analytics teams to develop algorithms to anticipate consumers’ current and future needs. Accumulating data from prior purchases, coupon use, surveys submitted, emails from Target that were opened, and demographics, a team of analysts render each consumer’s decision patterns into neatly packaged data sets tailored to predict their future buying choices. 

Flash forward to 2017, a time where online stores like Amazon dominate the market and cell phones are reservoirs of personal information, storing intimate details ranging from your location to your desired body weight to your mood. Furthermore, data analysis algorithms are more sophisticated than ever before, gobbling up volumes of information to generate highly specific and precise profiles of current and potential consumers.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.