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What price smart algos, predictive data?

By He Wei | China Daily | Updated: 2019-05-20 09:27

Retail businesses are replacing intuition and luck with data analysis to engage with consumers in a more accurate fashion. But on the consumer side, it's a more complicated story.

Here's something that happened to my friend. After having unprotected sex, she searched for "pregnancy test papers" only once on Taobao, a popular online shopping site in China. From then on, items related to the entire pregnancy cycle, from maternity dresses to infant formula, kept popping up on her landing page.

"I feel exposed and being monitored. All those flashy promotions do me no good but simply add to the pain, since they are the reminders of the unhappy experience that I had," she said.

By tracking users across those sites with what companies call a "unified ID", multiple retailers and tech companies are now able to not only tailor product recommendations to individual users but personalize the storefronts they visit according to their browsing and buying habits.

So what I get to see when browsing the shopping app might be totally different from what my friends find on their devices.

On second thoughts, it appears as though customized ad promotions based on your age, gender, shopping preference and even credit records are essentially an intrusion into your privacy.

Even without making the effort to know your name, by and large everything about you is out there, leaving computers calculating the odds of you purchasing a limited-edition branded bag.

Here's another example. The likes of Alipay and WeChat Pay can now allow simplified check-in procedures at hotels and support phone-based payments.

Yet, the potential for such tech being used for private-sector surveillance still haunts me: now they would know I like to spend weekends in Hangzhou, and that I get hungry at night because I finished all three Snickers in the mini bar.

Last year, Baidu's CEO Robin Li unexpectedly triggered public outcry when he said Chinese have exhibited a higher level of willingness to trade their privacy for convenience. While his view may be "politically incorrect", to me it seemed he made an important point.

When we share selfies and whereabouts using a location-based service on WeChat Moments, we are feeding valuable information to algorithms that can in turn craft highly personalized suggestions for local shopping, entertainment, and personal advice. Tie-ups with local businesses could preempt your independent choices.

But the question is: are our behaviors as consumers becoming increasingly transparent and traceable in the digital era? Do we have a choice or should we accept this as the new normal?

At the end of the day, my online behavior only reinforces the machine's self-learning ability until it gets smart enough to know me better than myself.

Call me conservative or paranoid, if you will. I'd rather go back to the good old days when people popped into boutique stores scattered across the Huaihai Road area in my Shanghai and booked a fancy dinner table two weeks ahead. Not everything needs to get "smart" and "predictive", I suppose. Else, there could be too high a price to pay.

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