Data Mining Will Destroy Us


Here comes the news we’ve all known we’d hear one day: horrifying things are being done with your data. This week, Adam and Brett talk to comedian Kevin Anderson and chill art dude Randall Maynard about all the terrifying ways your data is being used against you.


Horrifying Thing #1: Police Threat Scores

This one got an article on the ACLU website, because it’s that scary! Gettin’ started off right!

A company called Intrado makes a software called “Beware” that law enforcement officials in Fresno were outed in 2016 for using for “searching, sorting and scoring billions of commercial records” about individuals to assess their “threat level” by police standards. It uses things like social media posts and any website hits and combines it with public records and “key data elements from commercial providers” which you just know means Comcast and Google and Verizon and whoever the fuck else owns every single aspect of your life and probably records you on your phone and computer.

Not only has this creepy-ass system already got people on the list who clearly don’t belong on the list, it also, by way of a Justice Dept program, pulls in people “two hops” away from that person, so like for anyone the police deemed suspicious, their cousin’s high school girlfriend is included in the warrant to search their…everything. And the NSA uses a “three hops” system, which means if a suspect’s phone has just 40 contacts, that one warrant could conceivably cover 2.5 million people’s records.

There are all kinds of reasons why this is bad. We probably don’t need to tell you. Your imagination is probably speeding away already. But seriously, everything from you being targeted by law enforcement over inaccurate data to an oppressive government using it to crack down on dissidents. The friendly commie on staff (hi!) is not feeling comfortable.


Horrifying Thing #2: Extreme Gerrymandering

Hey speaking of oppressive governments, let’s talk about our own!

In 2010, the Republicans launched the REDMAP initiative, which was a computer and data driven effort to redraw congressional districts in favor of republican candidates. Gerrymandering is what the youth calls it. Democrats do it too, and it’s also bad, but Republicans are notorious for how incredibly shameless theirs is.

They used terabytes of voter data to redraw districts that went “purple” in the 2010 midterms to be far more likely to go red in future elections. They’ve had Congress on lock ever since. And this wasn’t a secret thing. REDMAP has a website (which we refuse to link to) that says this on it: “The party controlling that effort controls the drawing of the maps—shaping the political landscape for the next 10 years.”


Horrifying Thing #3: Protest Surveillance

Again, this piece is an absolute nightmare for your friendly neighborhood commie. There is a company called Geofeedia, which both Twitter and Facebook banned from using their data in December 2016, but I guarantee you they’ve already found another way in, that police were using to monitor people on social media using hashtags they didn’t like, such as #BlackLivesMatter or #MuslimLivesMatter, track their location in real time (even if they didn’t agree to share their location with the social media sites), and at one point they were even looking to integrate GeoFeedia with ShotSpotters. Which is an acoustic device with GPS capabilities that sends police location data whenever it detects gunshots.

The U.S. is still way behind China, where one estimate suggests the country will have more than 600 million surveillance cameras by 2020, with many of them being outfitted with “gait recognition” meaning they can identify a person based on how they walk. They’re saving facial recognition for newfangled glasses that they’re outfitting their police with, which work from a database of thousands of photos of “suspects” and can identify a person in a matter of milliseconds. Don’t worry though! The U.S. is 1000% already drooling over this (and can’t let China do better than the U.S. at…anything!) and we’ll catch up to them in the terrifying surveillance category in no time. They’re already talking about equipping cops with facial-recognition software for their bodycams, and yes, they are talking about using social media to do it. 

Now imagine if you combine these two things. A program that scours social media for hashtags, ties them to photos uploaded to social media, then feeds all of that glasses that identify the people using those hashtags should you happen to see them in public. So, say (just say) you’re living in a country where tweeting something like #notmypresident or any other anti-president sentiment still seems safe and legal so you do it a bunch (not us, never), and then somewhere down the road that president becomes a tyrant with access to technology like this. At that point you either hope you went back and deleted all the anti-president stuff in time for it to not be indexed somewhere (you didn’t) or you hope a pair of those glasses never picks up your face. Which is ridiculous. 

Or, say, we decide to round up the Dreamers at some point. I’m assuming we have pictures of all those people, building a database from those pictures that works with this technology and equipping ICE with it is literally a thing that could happen right now.

Of course, the makers of these programs do warn that “environmental noise” could lead to a few false identifications and accusations here and there, but hey, at least your country is free of dissidents now! 


Horrifying Thing #4: Accidental Leaks

This one would be terrifying on its own, but in this context it just seems sort of obvious…but mining all this data will inevitably lead to major public leaks. It’s already started! Just a few weeks ago the Sacramento Bee (the mascot for the city of Sacramento, he also does light clerical work) accidentally leaked 19.5 million voter files. It included home addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers of more than 50,000 Sacramento Bee subscribers, and as soon as the database was made it public, it was attacked by ransomware hackers. Instead of paying the ransom, the Bee just deleted the database. Fun!


Horrifying Thing #5: Terrifying Advances In Targeted Advertising

Let’s end on a “funny” story about how the department store chain Target figured out a teen was pregnant before her father did.

Target assigns every customer a Guest ID number. It’s tied to their credit card, name, or email and becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything you’ve bought and any demographic information they’ve collected about you or purchased elsewhere.

In one test, they analyzed troves of customer data to see if purchase history could determine if a woman might be pregnant. Not only were they able to find patterns that indicate that, they were able to find patterns that allowed them to pinpoint the due date. For example, sales of unscented lotion go up right around the start of the second trimester, and stocking up on supplements is something that women do in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

So, an example from this article as provided by a Target employee: If a 23 year old woman in Atlanta goes to Target in March and buys cocoa butter lotion, a purse big enough to also be a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and bright blue rug, there’s an 87 percent chance she’s pregnant and that her due date is sometime in late August.

They then use this data to identify customers they should be sending coupons for baby stuff to. The Target data miner being interviewed for the story shared an anecdote, and it’s just that, no sources or anything, about how a dad in Minneapolis came into the store all angry and shit because they sent his teen daughter coupons and ads for maternity clothes and whatnot and wanted to know why. The manager called a few days later to apologize, at which point the dad said HE should apologize, because it turns out his daughter really was pregnant.

Like…even if that story isn’t true, it could be true, which really gets to the issue either way. Plus it’s creepy to me that my friends and I will verbally discuss something in the proximity of my phone that I’ve never once typed into anything in my entire life and next time I go on social media I see an ad for that thing. You all know what I’m talking about.


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About the Author
Samantha Clarke is a writer, blogger and comedian who helps Adam Tod Brown out with the dirty work. You can find her own writing on her newsletter,, or buy her poetry books on