BUX Podcast 96: Are the NSA and UXers Both Spymasters?

The NSA is Spying on Us

On today’s podcast, Ben and I talk about the recent claims from former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden’s that the NSA is “spying on us” using multiple channels; phone, email, text, chat, videos, file transfers etc.

The Guardian wrote …

“The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell.”

Here is his interview with in conversation with Glenn Greenwald.

The response to this has been that the Government is ONLY collecting metadata, they are not actually listening to your conversations or reading your emails, so what’s the big deal?


The problem is that metadata is highly informative even without the actual contents of the conversation. For instance, you can still tell where, when, how long and with who you you had a conversation with, thus easily connecting you to people, events, places, etc. Ben mentioned this article about Paul Revere to demonstrate how informative metadata can be.

Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere by Kieran Healy shows how we  can use this metadata to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time without any actual conversations recorded.

An analysis of the metadata shows Paul Revere as being a person of interest based on his membership in multiple organizations and his affiliations with other people. You’ll have to read the article to see the fairly simple math that went into creating this diagram…which poses the question, “what the $%&# were you up to Paul Revere?


This just proves how invasive metadata can really be.

Marketers and UXers are Spying on us

As marketers, we love having access to consumer behavior and analytics so that we can better understand our audience and what they want and need. A big part of what we do is find the right tools to help us do that.

A brilliant example of how a company can analyze consumer data and behavior to capture market share is Target. Their somewhat intrusive marketing strategy became a topic of interest when a father confronted a Target store manager because his 16 year old daughter was receiving catalogs and coupons for diapers and other baby products. Turns out, Target knew the young girl was pregnant before her father did.

So how did Target know she was pregnant? By tracking trends and correlations over time of women who purchased certain “pregnancy related” products such as unscented lotions and vitamins (I think they identified 25 product indicators) and the frequency of these purchases to identify women in their first trimester.

You can check out the New York Times article here: How Companies Learn Your Secrets

Thanks for listening! Let us know your thoughts on the NSA, PRISM, Big Data and especially as it pertains to UX.

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