Oops, I did it again: another data/pregnancy story

Last week, my niece came to me with an advertising mail: a parenting insurance promotion for Gerber Life Insurance had just been sent to her, a sixteen-year-old girl, encouraging her to plan for her “little one’s future.”

I contacted Gerber to learn more about the profiling mechanism that led this campaign to land in the hands of a teenager but didn’t get any response.

Unlike for the Target case, it sounds like the girl is NOT pregnant and she surely did not have any baby. She was quite shocked to read this letter to her name. We tried to understand what triggered it? Was it going to a particular website that dealt with young parenting questions? Was it inadvertently clicking on an ad for Gerber Insurance? Was it the purchase by Gerber of some purchasing or site visit pattern data that helped their marketing to conclude that the girl was a young mom?

Besides the turmoil generated around the mail, I was troubled by a few things:

– The girl’s family felt like she, and maybe they had surrendered a lot of data along the way of their social and transaction interactions, and that a mastermind had spied on them all along. Of course, most of us know how everything is tracked on the internet, but when you face the “victim” of such profiling, you wonder how many bread crumbs have been collected and where it led to such a frontal conclusion: you have a kid! Then you start thinking: for how long and how broadly will this data be sold, reused and abused? At this stage, it felt that there was no more control. Even by erasing cookies and clicking “do not share personal data,” this data was long gone and way out of reach. Who knows where and when this data will hit the family again. Maybe Gerber food, Pampers diapers, Target Baby food and Gap Kids ads are already on their way!

– Also, the family was left in the dark. They had no way to understand why they received this information. Unlike some anti-spamming best practices, nothing was said about “the reason why you’re receiving this email.” It sounded like they never opted-in to anything. And now there was no instant way to opt-out, the whole exchange being on paper. Not only it felt wrong to receive this email, but there was no way to proactively have it corrected, even to help the Gerber marketing team doing a better job.

– Finally, when you deal with health and personal related information, you ought to be slightly more cautious than with clothes or apps. Pregnancy/birth/young child care are at the crossing of both, and even though it is not governed by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), it might touch sensitive topics. Should companies let analysts and data scientists blindly splatter consumers with emails/mails based on assumptions that could lead to sending relatively inadequate if not inappropriate content? We can presume that clustering, predictions, AI, ML and all the cool buzzword technologies have been applied to generate the analytics behind this campaign: but who took a step back to assess a core question: are we validating the age of the recipients? In the case of this letter, beyond the relative shock of this teenage girl, there don’t seem to be direct legal issues. But what would have happened with HIPAA data? What would have happened with casino promotions sent to blacklisted gamblers? It would have been a different ball game.

Data is a great asset, and we can mechanically extract so much insight from it. Let’s not forget that there are people involved on the receiving end of it and all along its processing. “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme” (“Science without conscience is but to the ruin of the soul”) wrote Rabelais in Pantagruel 1532 (yes, five centuries ago!).

Let’s consider data with people in mind. Let’s not only be Data Smart but also Data Wise.