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The Man Who Trapped Us in Databases

The New York Times [read free]- “Hank Asher was a drug smuggler with a head for numbers — until he figured out how to turn Americans’ private information into a big business. One of Asher’s innovations — or more precisely one of his companies’ innovations — was what is now known as the LexID. My LexID, I learned, is 000874529875. This unique string of digits is a kind of shadow Social Security number, one of many such “persistent identifiers,” as they are called, that have been issued not by the government but by data companies like Acxiom, Oracle, Thomson Reuters, TransUnion — or, in this case, LexisNexis. My LexID was created sometime in the early 2000s in Asher’s computer room in South Florida, as many still are, and without my consent it began quietly stalking me. One early data point on me would have been my name; another, my parents’ address in Oregon. From my birth certificate or my driver’s license or my teenage fishing license — and from the fact that the three confirmed one another — it could get my sex and my date of birth. At the time, it would have been able to collect the address of the college I attended, Swarthmore, which was small and expensive, and it would have found my first full-time employer, the National Geographic Society, quickly amassing more than enough data to let someone — back then, a human someone — infer quite a bit more about me and my future prospects. When I opened my first credit card, it got information from that; when I rented an apartment in New York City, it got information from that; when I bought a cheap car and drove across the country, it got information from that; when I got a speeding ticket, it got that; and when I secured a mortgage and bought my first house in Seattle, it got that. Two decades after its creation, my LexID and its equivalents in the marketing world have connected tens of thousands of data points to me. They reveal that I stay up late and that I like to bicycle and that my grandparents are all dead and that I’ve underperformed my earning potential and that I’m not very active on social media and that I now have a wife and kids, who, if they don’t already have LexIDs, soon will. Persistent identifiers let algorithms map in milliseconds a network of people I’ve met, lived near or interacted with online or off, and they show the trajectory of my life — up, down and sideways. They help health systems assess my living conditions, impacting what kind of care I get from my doctor. They affect how much I pay for car insurance. They help determine what kind of credit cards I have. They influence what ads I see and how long I wait on hold when I call a customer-service line. They allow computers inside police departments, intelligence agencies, hospitals, banks, insurance companies, political parties and marketing firms to understand personal behavior and, increasingly, as artificial intelligence and machine learning expand into every corner of society, to predict and exploit it…”

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