The Current

When companies analyze your data, your 'consumer score' can mean you end up on hold for longer: tech reporter

A New York Times reporter requested all the data that a third-party analyst was holding on her. The company sent back a 400-page report dating back years.

'If you're a very valuable customer, then you might get to talk to a human,' says reporter Kashmir Hill

A longer wait time when calling a company could mean your online data has given you a bad 'consumer score,' according to a New York Times journalist. (Shutterstock / Zivica Kerkez)

Read Story Transcript

Some companies are giving you a "consumer score" that could be affecting the kind of customer service you receive, says a New York Times tech reporter.

"You know when you call a 1-800 number, and sometimes you get right through to a human?" said journalist Kashmir Hill.

"And other times you are pushing 7, and 3, and 4, and 6 — and it seems like you can only talk to a robot?"

That longer wait time could be because the company has analyzed your online data to ascertain how valuable you are to their business, she told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

"If you're a very valuable customer, then you might get to talk to a human," she said.

Kashmir Hill requested the data a company held on her. The company responded with a 400-page report. (Submitted by Kashmir Hill; Earl Wilson/New York Times)

Hill has written about the practice for the New York Times, explaining how big retailers give customer data to third-party analysts. 

The results can help retailers target loyal customers with more ads or custom services, but it's also aimed at stopping fraud, and can be used to reject customers trying to return items, she said.  

"They basically are trying to look for people who may be fraudulent returners, or returning too often," she said.

But for honest customers that might mean you "try to make a return and they'll say: 'I'm sorry, your return's been rejected,' even though you're doing it within the policy of the company," she said.

"These [third-party] companies both save merchants and retailers money, and also help them make more money."

Company knew what she had for dinner three years ago

As part of her investigation, Hill requested all the data that a third-party company, Sift, was holding on her.

The company gave her a 400-page report.

It detailed private messages to an Airbnb host — where she complained that the property was flooded and had ants — as well as records of when she used digital currency app Coinbase; and the devices she had used at the time.

It even recorded that she had used her iPhone to order saag paneer and garlic naan from an Indian restaurant, on a Saturday night three years ago.

When she asked why the company needed information like that, Sift said that it was not necessarily interested in her individual habits, but needed a "huge population of users in order to find fraudulent behaviour."

"They can only kind of recognize those patterns if they have a lot of data to look at," Hill said.

If a Canadian was using one of our customer's services, and that customer chose to send that data to us, then yes we would have that data.- Sift CEO Jason Tan

Sift's CEO Jason Tan told The Current that "our customers choose what data to send to us, and we analyze that data for the purposes of preventing fraud for those businesses."

The company is U.S.-based, but Tan said that "if a Canadian was using one of our customer's services, and that customer chose to send that data to us, then yes we would have that data." 

Hill said she believes Sift is "one of the good actors," because their interaction with her was transparent and they handed over her file easily. 

Data collection has always been a "shadowy and secretive industry where consumers had very little access to these files," she said.

"That is starting to change very recently because of new privacy laws ... that say that companies have to tell us what they have on us."

Europe's new data privacy regulations — the toughest in the world — came into effect last year. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Last year the European Union brought in strict online privacy laws, ordering companies to be explicit with citizens about the data they collect and what they do with it. 

A California measure letting consumers request the data collected from them — and to opt out of future collection — is due to take effect next year.

Hill said anyone interested in getting personal data should check the part of the company's privacy policy that outlines data requests. 

Usually you will just need to email a request, she added, along with the form of ID stipulated by the company. 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Samira Mohyeddin and Danielle Carr.


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