WHAT THEY KNOW
AUGUST 4, 2010
On the Web's Cutting Edge, Anonymity in
You may not know a company called [x+1] Inc., but it may well know a lot about you.
In the latest "What They Know" installment, Julia Angwin discusses the case of Paul Boulifard,
who like most people can be profiled by websites that can predict whether or not someone will
be a good customer. Also, Kelly Crow discusses the apparent rebound in the high-end art market.
From a single click on a web site, [x+1] correctly identified Carrie Isaac as a young Colorado
Springs parent who lives on about $50,000 a year, shops at Wal-Mart and rents kids' videos. The
company deduced that Paul Boulifard, a Nashville architect, is childless, likes to travel and buys
used cars. And [x+1] determined that Thomas Burney, a Colorado building contractor, is a skier
with a college degree and looks like he has good credit.
The company didn't get every detail correct. But its ability to make snap assessments of
individuals is accurate enough that
Capital One Financial
Corp. uses [x+1]'s calculations to
instantly decide which credit cards to show first-time visitors to its website.
In an interview with WSJ's Alan Murray, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell conceded that advertisers
must do better to inform customers about the tracking and mapping of online behavior. On the
U.S. economy, he characterized the last 6-7 months as "America Bites Back" but wonders how
long the recovery will last.
In short: Websites are gaining the ability to decide whether or not you'd be a good customer,
before you tell them a single thing about yourself.
The technology reaches beyond the personalization familiar on sites like Amazon.com, which
uses its own in-house data on its customers to show them new items they might like.
By contrast, firms like [x+1] tap into vast databases of people's online behavior—mainly
gathered surreptitiously by tracking technologies that have become ubiquitous on websites across
the Internet. They don't have people's names, but cross-reference that data with records of home
ownership, family income, marital status and favorite restaurants, among other things. Then,
using statistical analysis, they start to make assumptions about the proclivities of individual Web
"We never don't know anything about someone," says John Nardone, [x+1]'s chief executive.
Capital One says it doesn't use the full array of [x+1]'s targeting technology, and it doesn't
prevent people from applying for any card they want. "While we suggest products that we
believe will be of interest to our visitors, we do not limit their ability to easily explore all
products available," spokeswoman Pam Girardo says.