Linking the mall to the laptop

Updated: 2012-12-28 07:28

By Philip J. Cunningham (China Daily)

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'He sees when you are sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake".

Most young kids in the United States are presented with the specter a judgmental, all-knowing Santa Claus, such as the one portrayed in the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The idea is that the material goods obtained during the Christmas season, usually placed under a Christmas tree, are not randomly chosen gifts of unconditional generosity; but instead are bestowed based on information painstakingly collected about one's behavior during the course of the year.

Sooner or later, however, the wistful rite of passage comes when kids realize that Santa Claus is not real, and with it, a liberating sense that their behavior is not in fact tracked and rated as closely as once thought.

Then along comes adulthood in the Internet age and you find out that you are in fact being tracked and rated in ways that even Santa would find invasive.

The surveillance center is not some remote outpost near the North Pole with grunt work carried out by underpaid elves and transportation bottled up by moody reindeer, but sunny Silicon Valley, where US Internet giants find ever more clever and ingenious ways to take your private data and combine it with an analysis of your online persona, your real world whereabouts and your shopping history to sell you a bill of goods for a profit.

Google has a gift for retailers this season, something called Conversions API, which promises new, improved customer surveillance that will "connect the dots" between what potential spenders are doing online and what they actually buy at the mall. A conversion is the moment when a customer's online interest in a product, or visit to the brick and mortar store, can be linked with a sale. Google's new service promises to combine "user engagement metrics", that is their knowledge of everything you do online, with retailer "bid optimization strategies", what retailers do to make you buy, in order to get a "conversion", in other words a sale, at the cash register.

Kaching! Google is coming to town.

Shoppers normally cover up to stay warm at this time of year but in terms of commercial surveillance they have never been more exposed. You park your car wondering about security cameras and firms that track license plates. You enter the anchor store at the mall where your every move is tracked by cameras. Shopping behavior patterns, pausing here, revisiting there, can be extracted from this data for in-house analysis. When it's time to pay, you are reminded of the advantages of a shopper loyalty card, a discount in exchange for information that can be monetized in a way that more than pays for the discount, and then you pull out your credit card, a real weak link if you want to protect personally identifiable information from the data chain.

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