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Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
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But sometimes they are intrusive. In the months leading up to the November presidential election, Google took its guesses into the political realm in a controversial way. Searchers who looked up Barack Obama saw news about the president threaded into their future searches on other topics. Searchers who looked up Mitt Romney did not see news about the Republican presidential candidate included in subsequent searches.
But it is worth noting that if a newspaper did the same thing—inserted Obama news into articles about toothpaste for certain readers—it would be roundly called out as biased and intrusive. Similarly, a newspaper would be called out if it placed only gay ads in the papers of subscribers it deemed to be gay, or diabetes treatment ads in the papers of subscribers it guessed had the disease. Does technology immunize Google from something that would not otherwise be socially acceptable?
The Effects Of Cell Phones On Our Lives
As companies gather more digital data about potential customers, they have the ability to use that information to charge different prices to different users or steer different users to different offers. Or a computer algorithm can set prices for each individual at exactly the price that is the most he or she is willing to pay for a given product or service.
The credit card companies have started using some of these techniques. In , my colleagues at the Wall Street Journal and I discovered that Capital One was showing different credit cards with different rates to different website visitors, based on its guesses about their income and geographic location. The reason was buried in the computer code. By , when my team again tested for market manipulation, the techniques had become more widespread and increasingly sophisticated. We found that credit card companies were still offering different cards to different users.
But we also found that websites were varying prices based on their guesses about where users were located. We found the most comprehensive price differences on the website of the office supply giant Staples, which appears to use data about visitors to guess where they live. It then displays different prices to different users based on its estimate of their geographic location. The end result: when Trude Frizzell logged on to Staples. The difference was not due to shipping costs, which are calculated after purchasing the item.
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Staples confirmed that it varies prices by a number of factors but declined to be specific. But offering price variations to different users can result in unfair results that are unintended. Our tests of the Staples website showed that areas with higher average income were more likely to receive discounted prices than lower-income areas. The worst types of financial manipulation exploit the poor, the old, or the uneducated. Consider the so-called sucker lists that data brokers compile of people who are old, in financial distress, or vulnerable in some other way to certain types of marketing pitches.
Sucker lists are often sold to unscrupulous marketers who pitch fraudulent products. Many of those home owners eventually lost their homes. John is a municipal worker—he repairs boilers for the town of Needham. He called the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and was instructed to appear at a hearing and bring documentation of his identity. When John showed up for his hearing, he learned that the RMV had begun using facial recognition software to search for identity fraud. The software compared license photos to identify people who might have applied for multiple licenses under different aliases.