Facebook knows me better than my wife does

Big data and predictive analytics are eroding individual privacy

Pete Lead


“Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads,” said Facebook in a 2016 statement titled Facebook Does Not Use Your Phone’s Microphone for Ads or News Feed Stories. “This is not true.”

The statement was in response to articles and social media accusations based on eerie coincidences.

“[Me] and my girlfriend had a first time conversation about the possibility of us using IVF in the future…. next morning I woke up to these [IVF] adverts on my news feed,” said Katie on Twitter. “I do not follow nor have liked any pages relating to this topic at all.”

The truth is even scarier: Facebook doesn’t need to listen because it already knows enough about you to predict your behaviour.

Data can be used to predict human behaviour

A decade earlier, a statistician at Target combined his interests in data science and human behaviour to develop a ‘pregnancy-prediction’ model. By analysing Target’s enormous data set of shoppers’ buying behaviour, Andrew Pole identified the product purchases and changes common to expectant mothers. When a shopper triggered the algorithm, the marketing team could target them with baby-related coupons and catalogues.

A chilling detail emerged in a 2012 NY Times article: a father complained that his teenaged daughter had been sent coupons for baby clothes. He thought the supermarket was encouraging high-schoolers to become pregnant. He later apologised; his daughter had confessed the truth. The model was so good it knew before he did.

“My wife is 6 days late, she got this in the mail today from Target…” Unknown (2015)

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Pete Lead

I work with startups, teach entrepreneurship, and freelance in improv and leadership coaching.