Beginner's Guide to Information Poisoning

"What man's mind can create, man's character can control." - Thomas Edison

All Your Data Are Belong To Us!

Information about you is constantly collected at almost every minute of your day.

The websites you visit are tracked by the sites themselves, by the advertisers on those sites, possibly by your ISP and, if you're surfing at your place of employment (Get back to work!), most likely by your bosses.

Your purchases are recorded by the seller, by the credit companies, by your bank.

Your phone calls are logged by the phone companies, your phone number is sold (and resold) to telemarketers, and if you're using cellular, your position can easily be found.

And, of course, Your Big Friendly Government is also there, monitoring anything it damn well pleases.

If you don't care about this or feel that "All's Fair in Love and Business", this document is not for you. It's fine, really, to think this way. It's nice when your clothing store sends you an extra coupon when your birthday rolls around. Switching long distance carriers last year saved you a bundle over what you used to be paying. And those Ginsu knives really do cut through a tin can!

But if you don't like this constant collection, selling and reselling of your information, read on. There are dozens of easy ways to slow this trend, from opting out of mailing lists, using spam drop boxes for your email and telling the telemarketers to "take me off your list". (You've started doing these, right?) The method that I'll deal with here is slower, contains no instant gratification and turns some trivial things into minor hassles. However, implemented properly, it will lead to the complete cessation of all personal data gathering and the destruction of most of the collected data on file.

7% Off If You Use Your Store Credit Card...

"Blow up a McDonalds for Tyler Durden!" - Anonymous Slashdot Poster

So how does all this happen? Simply, it's a two-step process - data collection and data aggregation.

This is the way that it works now. People do things and it gets recorded, collated, mined, printed, stapled, faxed and then sold to the highest bidder. Everyone wins (sort of) because of the data integrity. Keeblisco can study it's actions and the results. VISA and Your Grocery Store pick up a few pennies for the information supplied. You get nothing.

Well, you do get more advertising projected at you.

And maybe a coupon in your next Maxim magazine. Lucky for you, though your arteries would disagree.

However, if Keeblisco found that data from Vendor B indicated that males 18-24 actually bought fewer boxes of Crakers after the advertising started, it would have reason to pause. And if data from Vendor C indicated that it went up slightly, but not as much as the original numbers, it would face a real dilemma. Perhaps it will go with it's original numbers, the ones indicating a nice gain in sales. It ramps up the advertising budget and produces the cell phone covers.

They flop.

Heads roll. Marketers are fired. Managers are reassigned. Graphic Artists are hassled. And they stop buying 'numbers' from Vendor A.

Now imagine this happening, slowly, industry wide. Companies find that the data they're purchasing is bunk, completely unreliable. If it says that sales in a demographic go up, it might have gone down. Or stayed the same. Or even gone up. They don't know and since they can't trust the numbers, they quit buying. First from A, then B and then they stop buying marketing numbers altogether. A goes out of business, B goes out of business and eventually companies quit purchasing numbers from the grocery stores, so the stores quit collecting them. And we win.

Why? Two words: Data Integrity (or the lack thereof).

And this, after all that huffing and puffing, is what this is all about. By starting to 'poison' the data collected, we chip away at the integrity of it all. When the integrity is gone, the market dries up and the collection quits. When their numbers become as reliable as a Magic-8 ball, there's no need to buy them from anyone - you can easily flip your own 8-ball and make decisions from that.

With that in mind, let's see how we can accomplish this...

The method to our madness

Sounds easy, right? Sure! Well... kinda. Ok, ok, not really. They (whomever is collecting the data) knows that "Data Integrity" is central to their business. And so they're guarding it, like a box guarded by a dragon inside a castle with men carrying crossbows on the turrets and a moat surrounding it all. With crocodiles in it. Mean ones.

They've got statistical analysis that can be run on the numbers. They can cross-reference. They can compare it against local trends, against buying histories, against your buying history. Questionable numbers are tossed and feedback is monitored. If their numbers start to indicate that 80 year old men have started listening to the 'Alt Rock' station rather than the geezer stations that they have aimed at them, they go over those numbers with a fine tooth comb. Chances are they're forming their own category: "People Who Try to Spoof Us" - tend to stay up late, buy 3.2 beer from the grocery store and use less aerosol deodorant than other peers in their category. (Very important: DO NOT stop doing this! You'll see why later.)

So, to wreck the Data Integrity, it would have to be done in a way that avoids detection. We have to replace the contents of the box without alerting the dragon, archers or the crocs. Everything has to appear normal, except that the numbers stop working out.

The word that we're looking for here is "subtlety". A sudden shift in patterns will be noticed. The collectors know what 'you' have done in the past and can make educated guesses about the future. If the young'uns started buying Ensure at a much higher rate than before, the jig is up.

So, the next time that you fill out a survey, make it almost correct. If you're 24, you're 32. If you're 35, you're 26. Or 42. Or (and this is the tricky part) 32. And here is the only rule that I can give you: There can be no (other) rules. Why?

Because rules would lead to predictability and predictability leads to statistics and statistics get sold all over again. If everyone bumps their ages up by 4 years, then they simply collect the numbers and subtract 4 from all the ages. If everyone who's "Black" or "African American" suddenly becomes "Hispanic", then they take everyone who claims to be "Hispanic", filters out a percentage (probably the rise in people answering "Hispanic" since the last survey) and sells that.

So, it's not just about coming up with different numbers and funny names ("I. P. Daley"), sometimes (though, I can't give you a number on how often, you know?) you'll have to use real information. (Though this doesn't mean dishing out your address if you don't want to. Feel free to munge your personally identifying data to your heart's content.) If the number crunchers can't determine when you are fudging the numbers and when you are telling the truth, their accuracy goes down. If many people are doing this, their accuracy goes way-y-y down.

Don't discourage those who fit into the first category that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay - those that believe that businesses can do what they damn well please with your information, the lassiez-faire wankers who believe that they are being telemarketing calls at suppertime because you glanced at a store display and the camera monitoring it matched your face with a customer record purchased from your credit company and since you didn't buy it then they thought that this would be a good time to give you another chance and all I need is your address for verification is a god-given right of red-blooded (your nation here)! If these people stopped dishing it out left and right, the data collectors would be alerted. We absolutely don't want that.

To those who enjoy filling out cards with data obviously wrong, keep it up. There's already a category on you and they depend upon it being there. They know that X amount of people will fill their information out intentionally incorrectly, college students becoming 85 year old spinsters. If this number decreases, they'll notice. Remember, we have to change the content of the box without anyone taking note. The longer this exists without them catching on, the worse off they are.

And so...

In conclusion, if you want to strike a blow against those who would invade your privacy like this, tweak their numbers. Just a little. Encourage your friends and family to do so. Trade grocery cards with others. Have your buddy buy something on his credit card and cut him a check (plus a little interest). Pay with cash. Buy something that's on display and give it to the food shelf on the way out the door.

And don't stop from making meaningful connections with those you like and trust. If your local independent retailer of (your hobby) is making a mailing list, sign up with your real name and information. Give feedback. Donate. Enjoy.

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