In this age of big data, a growing number of strangers want to know what kind of lettuce or cereal you buy, where and when you like to shop, who you bank with and what you spend your paycheck on.
For years, data brokers and online companies such as Google and Facebook have been collecting revealing dossiers on everyday consumers and using those profiles to target ads or perform other kinds of research.
The practice has been going on for so long now many people barely bat an eye when they come across an eerily prescient ad for a consumer product – or perhaps a political candidate – they happened to just be thinking about, but not yet searching for, the day before.
But as data collection, targeted ads and consumer research enabled by billions of data points still lingering online becomes more routine, a whole new set of actors are becoming interested in the details of your on and off-screen life.
Banks, researchers want to know more about you
Academic researchers, for example, are combing a wide range of data sets – from web histories to payment information to cell phone data – to learn more about who people are and how they live.
Meanwhile, banks are becoming increasingly interested in mining the troves of valuable information they have access to – such as customers’ credit card transaction data – to offer new services, such as personalized deals that encourage you to buy more with your card (and stay loyal to it).
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, for example, the analytics firm Cardlytics has helped some banks use customers’ transaction data to target coupons or other retail offers. The ventures have been successful – not just for retailers, but also for banks. For example, Cardlytics told Bloomberg that banks have seen an estimated 9 percent pop in transactions due to their partnerships with the data mining company.
As Bloomberg noted, banks have historically been skittish about monetizing customer transaction data. But their reluctance appears to be fading.
A valuable window into people’s lives
Credit card transaction data isn’t just useful for doling out targeted coupons or serving up ads, though. Your buying history can also reveal a surprising amount about who you are, what you value and where you are in life.
A just-released study published in the journal Nature Communications combined anonymized data about people’s credit card spending histories with cell phone location data in order to learn more about how people interact, what they buy and where they go when they leave home.
By doing so, they detected some revealing patterns about people, depending on their age, gender and other factors. Women, for example, tend to focus much of their budgets on groceries, while people who spend a lot on tolls tend to be men with long commutes.
“In the age of information, we leave digital traces of our everyday activities: the people we call, the places we visit, the things we eat and the products we buy,” wrote researchers. “Each of these human activities generates data that when analyzed over long periods yield a comprehensive portrait of human behavior.”
You can opt out – to a point
If you don’t like having your credit card data analyzed, you can opt out of your bank sharing your anonymized information. By law, banks are required to let you decline having your data sold to certain third parties.
However, you have to affirmatively do it. For example, Mastercard and Visa offer online forms you can use to opt out of having your anonymous transaction data shared with others. You can also opt out of targeted ads through YourAdChoices.
You may never be able to opt out of the data sharing ecosystem completely, though. Data brokers and other data miners have mastered the art of scraping data and have access to a lot of information at their disposal – including public records, address histories and more.
You should be able to keep your credit card transaction data safe as long as you opt out of data sharing. But if you’ve ever used retail loyalty cards or purchased goods from certain types of retailers, such as mail order companies, then your purchase data may already be out there, waiting to be analyzed.
How to protect your data without becoming a hermit
Similarly, people tend to leave a trail of publicly accessible information, no matter how private they are. Some experts say that unless you cut yourself off from society completely, you’ll have a hard time keeping 100 percent of your information private.
Rather than try to close yourself off completely, be mindful about the information you share online or with retailers and be sure to read companies’ privacy policies. You may not have total control over your personal data; but you can at least limit what’s shared.