Big Data and the curious case of a pregnant teenager

Big DataHave you ever come across a street magician who will ask you to think about a number/name and with some out of the world magic trick will tell what were you thinking. Of course you will be pleasantly surprised but the situation becomes scary if companies who are vying for your patronage knows exactly what you are looking for and before you utter a single word they offer it to you. Now these companies are no street magicians who are just having some fun – these big corporations are trying to extract every dollar from your purse – therefore any customer will be weary of the fact that these companies knows a lot more than they intend to share.

Let us look at a peculiar case which may scare the customers out of their wits:

Every time you go out for shopping you share some intimate purchase patterns with the retailers. Many of these retailers are actually closely studying these consumer behaviours. It enables these retailers to understand what you need and the sales pitch that will be appropriate to win you over.

For example Target has been able to data-mine critical information about you that enables Target to even figure out whether you have a baby on the way long before you actually have the need to buy diaper. So even before you have shared the pregnancy news with your near and dear ones – the company starts mailing you flyers for baby products.

It can be really scary for customers and that is exactly what happened in one case.

At one of the Target store an angry man came who wanted to see the manager. Upon enquiry the angry man told that his teenage daughter who is in high school is receiving coupons for baby clothes and cribs. The manager promptly apologized although he had no idea as to how this happened.

After few days the manager called in to apologies once again for the confusion that has been created but to his utter surprise the father told that his daughter was in fact pregnant and he had no idea earlier about it.

What Target was able to find out seems to be a plot from a Hollywood science fiction movie but in reality it is all true.

As all of you may be aware the idea of ‘Big Data’ is in the air. You are not the only one who has recently heard this word and has little or no idea about it. In simpler terms ‘Big Data’ is a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes impossible for the traditional data processing applications to evaluate it.

But there are many large organisations which have been able to construct identifiable patterns in the Big Data. The accuracy with which these companies are able to data mine customer’s information can easily be construed as an infringement on privacy.

But the problem is not merely identification of your shopping patterns. Now we are at a stage where that huge complex data sets can be analyzed to discover subtle patterns, correlations or relationships that a normal human brain cannot perceive on their own. It leads to some very scary problems that we will face in the future.

Problem 1: If we combine a personal information with huge external data sets we can deduce new startling facts about the person (such as the case of pregnant teenager). There will be many people who will not like corporations to know these information. We as a human like to control what others know about us – that’s the core concept of privacy and such evaluation of the Big Data pose a potent threat to this principle.

Problem 2: Big Data will be heavily biased towards bigger corporations who are able to extract such critical information about the customer and accordingly customize their business plans. Where as smaller organisations will be struggling to understand even the basic customer preferences. If a retailer knows what I am desperately looking for and how much I am willing to pay for it – this will give it an unprecedented advantage over all other retailers.

Problem 3: Big Data will also be creating bias amongst individuals. For example customers who are savvy and well educated will get preferential treatments and thereby creating a new divide in the society. Here data mining will result in the increase of the social stratification.

Problem 4: Big Data will be used for ‘risk analysis’ in ways which will be highly prejudiced. For example health insurance companies or banks can deny you services based on the information provided by such data mining.

Problem 5: Law enforcement agencies will be able to map out criminal behaviours. If you want to see what drastic impact it will have on our society I will recommend you to watch the movie ‘Minority Report‘ – where police was able to pre-determine crime and issue punishment even before the crime actually takes place. There are lots of moral conflict that will originate from it as such predications will overrun ‘free will’.

Problem 6: Ultimately it will lead to people adjusting their natural behaviour to suit the preferable patterns. This will lead to drastic impact on the socio-economic fabric of our civilization.

Every market researcher LOVES to throw the words ‘Big Data’ around these days but do they realize the negative impact it can have on our society?

Akshay Kanyal

Akshay Kanyal

Akshay Kanyal writes survey research reviews on his popular blog Online MR. He’s an avid blogger, brand consultant and a content marketing expert, helping business owners to craft content that sells.

He provides content marketing advice to start-ups and innovation driven companies. He can be contacted at

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