Big Data Will Know If I'm Pregnant Before My Mom Does

A couple years ago the New York Times ran a long-form article on the advent of big data. Both intriguing and alarming, the article included a memorable story about a father of a teenage girl who stormed into a Target store demanding to know why they were sending his daughter coupons for baby-related items. The father yelled at the clerk:

"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?"

Of course they weren't. But Target didn't send the promotional materials because the teen was thinking about becoming pregnant—she was already pregnant. Essentially, Target's analytics and marketing department knew that the teen girl was pregnant before her father did.

What's surprising is not that a teen girl was hiding her sexual activity from her father, but that Target knew about the pregnancy through big data without the teen even creating a baby registry.

So how did Target know? As the article details, the copious amounts of data collected from consumers through search engines, purchases, email subscriptions, simple click-throughs, and so on is tracked and then aggregated and analyzed through algorithms. Through this process, Target's big data system and wonks were able to reasonably predict that a woman is or soon will become pregnant if she searches for or buys items such as prenatal vitamins and unscented lotions. Apparently the algorithms are so precise that they can predict within a few weeks when the baby is due.

Is big data a 21st century Big Brother or simply smart marketing?

I think it's both, as does Janet Vertesi, associate professor of sociology and technology at Princeton University. In this article, Professor Vertesi explains how she and her husband committed to their own sociological experiment: whether they could hide her pregnancy from big data. A "conscious objector" to Google since 2012 due to changes in the company's privacy policy, Vertesi already refrained from using Google but also planned to avoid leaving a data trail akin to a modern where in the world is Carmen Sandiego. (Side note: I learned more about geography through that game than I did in actual geography class.)

Vertesi wasn't only bucking internet norms, but she was also subverting the ability of big data firms to capitalize on her data, all because of her pregnancy.

A pregnant woman's marketing data is 15 times more valuable than the average person's. 

As the New York Times article explained:

"Among life events, none are more important than the arrival of a baby. At that moment, new parents’ habits are more flexible than at almost any other time in their adult lives. If companies can identify pregnant shoppers, they can earn millions."

Therefore flying under the big data radar means companies are missing out on incredibly rich information. But avoiding being tracked through big data was harder than Vertesi and her husband expected. It meant using incognito search engines like DuckDuckGo and buying new items only with cash. "Those kinds of activities, particularly when taken in aggregate across the big-data landscape, are exactly the kind of things that would take you as likely engaging in criminal activity, as opposed to just having a baby," Vertesi said, "Fortunately, we never had the FBI show up at our door. But you start noticing the lengths, the extremes you have to go to to try to not be tracked."

While Vertesi and her husband persevered through the "extreme difficulty" of flying under the big data radar, they wouldn't recommend it for everyone. "I  found myself heavily censoring the stuff I did and said, because of that concern," she shared.

The Target article and Vertesi's experiment on hiding her pregnancy from big data both fascinated and disturbed me.

But the statistic on how pregnant women's marketing data is 15 times more valuable particularly alarmed me. I must have repeated "OMG! 15 times!" to my husband a dozen times before he said, "I know! I get it! But it makes sense."

Of course it makes sense. Women are the primary shoppers in 3 out of every 4 households in the United States [source], although the percentage of men taking on or sharing this role has increased over the last 2 decades [source]. Marketers therefore know that if they "bait" a pregnant woman with a product or brand at that pivotal—and incredibly personal—time of her life than they can "hook" her to be more loyal to that product or brand in the coming years. That's a highly sought-after return on investment.

But it's also one of the creepiest things I've ever heard of, and completely turns me off from any company that intentionally tracks me in this way. The problem is that we are being tracked by every company all the time, with little oversight on how this data is used.

As a married, educated woman in my mid-twenties, I feel big data breathing down my neck.

Every click through mommy blogs. Every browsing through Apartment Therapy tours of homes and nurseries. Every purchase on Amazon of essential oils to make DIY beauty products. Every Google search for nearby yoga classes. They all add up to reasonably accurate profile of who I am, where I live, what I buy, what my approximate household income is, my education level, hobbies and interests, etc. If I were to see the profile that big data marketers have on me, I imagine that it would be eerily accurate and that I'd want it erased immediately.

I'm sure they already have analyzed a correlation between going Paleo (or some other "real food" diet), switching to natural beauty products, getting in shape through yoga or whatever else is trending, and slowing down one's social media presence. The sample size is small, but nearly every pregnant woman I know (thanks to a barrage of recent updates on Facebook) has followed this trajectory. If they haven't figured it out, you're welcome for the idea, big data companies.

As my friend who recently announced her pregnancy on Facebook explained:

"Take the...ads you saw while you were planning your wedding. Multiply that by 50. That's what I see on a daily basis. There is nothing on any ad or feed that does not have to do with babies or maternity...It all started after a few Google searches when I first got pregnant and hasn't stopped since."

While I'm not in the same life stage as my friend and the professor who initiated this experiment, I am now more aware of how big data marketers are waiting for the day when/if my data becomes 15 times more valuable than it currently is.

But until that day (if it comes), I'll keep on clicking on.