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How Companies Learn Your Secrets:

The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole's colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.

As Pole's computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a "pregnancy prediction" score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There's, say, an 87 percent chance that she's pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What's more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny's habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she'll use it when she comes back again.

"We have the capacity to send every customer an ad booklet, specifically designed for them, that says, `Here's everything you bought last week and a coupon for it,' " one Target executive told me. "We do that for grocery products all the time." But for pregnant women, Target's goal was selling them baby items they didn't even know they needed yet.

"With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly," the executive said. "Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We'd put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We'd put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.

"And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn't been spied on, she'll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don't spook her, it works."


And they're hostile about it, too:

When I sent Target a complete summary of my reporting, the reply was more terse: "Almost all of your statements contain inaccurate information and publishing them would be misleading to the public. We do not intend to address each statement point by point." The company declined to identify what was inaccurate. They did add, however, that Target "is in compliance with all federal and state laws, including those related to protected health information."

When I offered to fly to Target's headquarters to discuss its concerns, a spokeswoman e-mailed that no one would meet me. When I flew out anyway, I was told I was on a list of prohibited visitors. "I've been instructed not to give you access and to ask you to leave," said a very nice security guard named Alex.
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Tronapalooza
Life progresses, salted with the exhaustion fall-out of CanSecWest, which was most of my last week. Getting up early, staying up obscenely late, helping where I could, dropping dead into the social scene, making people smile, checking badges, keeping certain people sane. I missed most of Tronapalooza, the big party on Thursday night featuring quadcopters and the actual machines from Flynn's Arcade in Tron, but still managed to get back in touch with most of my interesting people, plucked from the anonymous sea of perpetual t-shirts and black CanSec branded pull-overs, so even though I didn't tag along to Whistler this year, I'm satisfied with how I spent my time. Also, this year's best misused skill: spatial dynamics! It took me fourty minutes, but I was able to weave bottles together well enough to fit approximately $2,000 worth of alcohol safely and comfortably into one hotel fridge.

(Far more sane than the year before last, which was "Dexterity! Using an obscenely sharp sword to snap the top off of champagne bottles first thing in the morning, on little to no sleep." Yes, there were some casualties. Apparently katana slice through aluminum like water.)

Today: Walking away from tsunami and related nuclear news, and instead doing laundry, some spring cleaning, sewing a button back onto my coat, building a photography site for Lung, and generally preparing for my trial day of work tomorrow.

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