Terry Gilliam's new film, "The Zero Theorem" will be familiar to his fans.
Marketing companies are gathering information about consumers’ behavior — from tracking what you watch on T.V. to where you spend time online — and using it to help businesses calculate how to target their products.
Media analyst John Carroll joins Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer to discuss how this relatively new way of mining and manipulating data is transforming the marketing and retail industry.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
From Disney to Madison Avenue to the cable box in your living room, marketing companies are tracking your behavior like never before. They want to know where you go, what you like, how long you use things. And the information that marketers gather up and analyze is transforming the consumer environment. Not surprisingly, it's also bringing up privacy issues.
John Carroll is HERE AND NOW's media analyst. He's also a mass communication professor at Boston University. And he joins us now to dissect all of this. Welcome back to the program, John.
JOHN CARROLL: Nice to be here.
PFEIFFER: So, John, of course, collecting is becoming so widespread, data collection. We hear about it all the time. It's even now made its way to Disney World. The company has launched a $1 billion experiment called My Magic Plus. Tell us about this and how it works.
CARROLL: Yeah. This is sort of a ride share, a planning system, a reservation system, and what it does is they give you a wristband that has your admission ticket on it. It has your hotel key on it if you're staying in the Magic Kingdom. It has your credit and debit cards on it. So - and they can track you through the park. So they collect data on what you're doing and essentially use it so they can have the characters address your child by name, things like that.
So there are a lot of things that they can use this for and essentially make things smoother. What they say is they want to make the experience more immersive, more seamless and more personal. I mean, other people think that it's just creepy and that the Magic Kingdom will be the trackiest(ph) place on Earth.
CARROLL: It's hard to know. But, I mean, Disney is a leader in these kinds of things. They are often an innovator. So this may be something that starts to spread - ballparks to museums, who knows.
PFEIFFER: So if you have the wristband, they'll know where you are every footstep in the park. They'll know what you're spending, what you're buying.
PFEIFFER: And they know your kids' names, you said.
CARROLL: Yeah, yeah. They'll have all this information. Now they're saying we'll personalize the experience, but what it does is it makes it more efficient for them. So it's dynamic staffing. They can switch the staff to be where things are busiest. It's a way to plan on crowds. It's really to drive traffic. It's crowd control. It's all kinds of things that are going to benefit them, that are going to make it easier for them to have more people come through the park on a daily basis.
PFEIFFER: I'm really interested in sort of the child aspect of that because Google, which is, you know, a leader, maybe the leader, in data mining has two lawsuits against it, both for targeting kids. Tell us about those lawsuits. And is Disney sort of - could Disney be in jeopardy in any way as a result?
CARROLL: I'm not sure about what the ramifications are for Disney, but Google is in a lawsuit in California for - being accused of data mining kids' emails in this education app that Google provides for free to schools and higher education institutions, about 30 million people worldwide users. And they have been data mining that and especially children's data. And that's a very touchy issue.
The other one is a lawsuit in New Jersey, and this is Google and Viacom have been tracking the video viewing of children on websites and using it. They have cookies that are basically following the kids and recording their viewing histories and then selling it potentially to marketers so they can target ads more finely and more narrowly.
PFEIFFER: And, John, this is - data collection has gotten to the point where it's not just companies acting individually but working in coordination with other companies on data collection.
CARROLL: Right. Exactly. Google is teaming up with Facebook to sort of combine information. They're combining their Google Merchant accounts with Facebook advertising. So the whole goal here is to customize advertising more and more narrowly so that ads that come to you are chockfull of data that tells people that these ads are going to be more effective, they're going to be - you're going to relate to them more, that they're going to be sort of more persuasive.
PFEIFFER: We've talked about three big brand names so far - Disney World, Google, Facebook - very pervasive companies. In Disney's case, very - thought of as very family friendly. It might surprise some people to hear that even at the Disney level this is happening. Are there any other companies or entities that should be on the radar, in your view, of anyone interested in keeping tabs on where our personal information goes?
CARROLL: Right. Well, the cable box that people have in their home is a goldmine of information. Comcast has now purchased a company that is going to enable it to more easily deliver addressable advertising. And addressable advertising is advertising that is targeted to one household. So if I'm on the third floor watching the same movie as the - the same TV show as the couple on the first floor who have two kids, I'm going to be getting ads for Centrum Silver and Carnival Cruises.
CARROLL: They're going to be getting ads for Flintstones Vitamins and the Magic Kingdom. So this is a way to target ads to a household of one. And this is the future that Comcast wants. A lot of this is the data is already there. The question is how do they handle it, and can they crunch it in a way that makes it most effective? But it's - for everybody, it's all about data collection.
PFEIFFER: And, of course, this issue has been out there a long time.
PFEIFFER: Privacy issues have been out there a long time. But do you see this reaching sort of more and more invasive levels? Is it more envelope-pushing in terms of what companies are doing and what they gather?
CARROLL: It's certainly what marketers want. I mean, you look at a company like Facebook. I mean, Facebook is being - your Facebook page is being strip-mined like West Virginia. Mark Zuckerberg just wants the information. And everything he does is geared toward getting more information out of you. So the data mining is what Facebook is all about. Everything else is window dressing. So he puts the timeline in, and a timeline is a feature that encourages you to post more information about yourself.
And that's what Mark Zuckerberg wants so that he can slice it up and sell it to marketers. I mean, that's the business that he's in. So I think that there's no stopping this - the momentum of this movement because this is giving people more and more sophisticated, more and more three-dimensional information about consumers.
PFEIFFER: It certainly seems like it would behoove people to be more conscious when you're online of the sort of footsteps you're leaving and how they may be used.
CARROLL: You can try. I mean, it's a full-time job just to keep up on the privacy changes on Facebook. So it's difficult. The downside is if you keep all your information, if everybody kept all their information away from the data collectors, then the Internet is not going to be free anymore. The Internet is free because they can collect all this information and sell it off to marketers.
PFEIFFER: John, the question that always seems to come up at the end of these conversations is how do we retain some digital privacy. So short of giving up our cellphones and our computers and our cable, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves if we don't want these companies collecting information about us? What have you concluded?
CARROLL: I mean, you can go and you can try to get on do not track lists. You can try to basically be on top of your privacy settings on a regular basis. But it's work. You have to actually work at it. And there are people out there, there are groups out there that can help you do this kind of thing. But you've got to be willing to invest the time and the effort.
PFEIFFER: John Carroll is HERE AND NOW's media analyst, and he's a mass communications professor at Boston University. John tracks these data privacy issues at his blog called Sneak Adtack, which you'll find a link to on our website, hereandnow.org. John, thanks very much.
CARROLL: Thank you.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And, you guys, some other stories we're following later today. President Obama is expected to meet with the heads of several tech corporations concerned about NSA surveillance. Also, after six years of shrinking, the Greek economy expected to grow. But do people there feel that? These and other stories coming up later today, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.