Big Brother, Don Draper and Target

There’s a scene in the mid-90s tour de force film “Independence Day” where Randy Quaid’s character, an erratic, rambling man who claims to have been abducted by aliens, is joining up with that most prominent of disaster movie trope, the rag-tag group of supervisors.

The rag-tags are learning how to fly cutting-edge fighter jets to fight the alien invaders. Quaid’s character, Russel Casse, announces that “ever since I was kidnapped by aliens 10 years ago, I’ve been dyin’ for some payback.”

Then everybody looks at him like he’s crazy, and goes back to their fighter training.

Why, exactly?

At this point in the movie everybody on the planet knows aliens are real and they are quite intent on blowing up all of our monuments in super awesome slow motion.

Then why, when faced with overwhelming evidence proving this once outlandish theory irrefutably correct, would people still consider Russel Casse a nutjob?

After the Washington Post and The Guardian released stories detailing the National Security Agency’s massive, warrantless collection of digital data on hundreds of millions of Americans (known as the Prism program), how many people do you think felt a little like Russel Casse?

In case you haven’t read about it in the paper, seen it on TV or seen one of the multitude of Facebook memes with a picture of Obama with a Sherlock Holmes style magnifying glass, it turns out the NSA has been tracking pretty much everybody’s cell phone and Internet traffic for years now, all in an attempt to determine patterns of behavior that might prove useful for disrupting potential terrorist attacks.

There are arguments to be made for both sides. Obviously the government, particularly the national security branches, need to use all avenues possible to keep the country safe. Of course the American public has the right to know about these programs and to petition their government for a redress of this particular grievance.

My question is this: Why now?

This has been happening for a while now, and you liked it.

Maybe you didn’t know the government was mining all of this data, but you had to notice all your ads on Amazon we’re eerily targeted toward your buying habits, right? You didn’t think everybody saw the same banner ad for “Turkish Star Wars” on Bluray, did you?

“But Wes,” I’m sure you’re saying from somewhere deep inside an undisclosed location, “those big tech companies are always coming up with targeted ads, I’m sure it’s just another Google project.”

If Google created it, then why do these targeted ads find me on longtime Google enemies: Facebook, Apple and the aforementioned Amazon? Because none of them developed the code to do this kind of data mining; they got it from the NSA.

In a move that I’m sure cost them millions in unsold digital distribution rights, the NSA made public their data mining code, called Accumulo, to pretty much anybody that would listen. And that was two years ago.

Did advertisers use data mining before Accumulo? Sure, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient.

Case in point: Target. A year ago the company had a little PR trouble when it started sending coupons to expecting mothers. Only the mothers hadn’t told anyone they were pregnant; particularly not a giant corporation like Target. A guy named Andrew Pole, a statistician for Target, had figured out that when a woman suddenly starts buying vitamins, unscented lotion and large quantities of cotton balls there is a statistically probable chance she is pregnant and it’s time to hook her as a customer with pregnant-specific coupons.

All this happened last year, well after the release of Accumulo but detinetly before NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden released the details of the Prism program. Prism is pretty much like Target’s program, it just doesn’t look for pregnant mothers, it looks for terrorists.

And there’s the rub. Massive data collection and mining are a good thing, when they bring you the products you think you want, but they’re a bad thing when the government uses them to keep you safe?

These data mining operations are for one thing: to tailor advertising to you, specifically. Don Draper would have sold his favorite bottle of scotch to get this kind of direct consumer data.

Like I said, there are arguments to be made for both sides. Maybe you think the government should be able to view ALL communication, be it email, gmail or scratches on a bathroom wall. Maybe you think the right to privacy should be so absolute we should abolish the census. Maybe you think, like I do, that there is a balance to be made between security and privacy and that a little transparency might not be a bad thing.

But one fact is beyond debate: The next time you see somebody drunkenly rambling about something that sounds so outlandish it couldn’t possibly be real, it might be worth your time to listen to them.

Unless it’s actually Randy Quaid, then I?suggest you run; I?hear he’s crazy.