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We’ve all experienced the “ick” factor — that queasy feeling that a company has a bit too much information about you. Sure, you love that Apple’s Genius has figured out what music you like and recommends artists you haven’t yet discovered. Yes, you tolerate eBay’s suggestions based on past purchases (who can’t use another baseball jersey?). Maybe it was just a tad creepy that Netflix offered a slew of crime procedurals shortly after your two-day marathon of Law & Order: Criminal Intent while recovering from a flu bug. (See “Why Net-flix Thinks I’m Gay,”  and In re: Netflix Privacy Litigation www.videoprivacyclass. com.) It was definitely over-the-top to discover your picture in a Facebook advertisement for a product you “liked”.

But did you know that Target’s algorithms can determine with astounding accuracy that you are in your second trimester of pregnancy — because you started buying scent-free lotions, washcloths, hand sanitizers, and cotton balls? And that Target then can tailor the advertising flyer that is sent to your home to include coupons on baby food, diapers, and other necessities of a newborn? You might find that downright invasive, especially if you are a high school student who hasn’t yet been exactly candid with her father. Your subsequent upset stomach may be triggered by something more than morning sickness. Makes you want to actually read those Terms of Service agreements, right?

Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, wrote about the Target data project in his new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg, who will present the January 31, 2013 keynote address at LegalTech New York, details how Big Data — freely provided by customers — is a gold mine of knowledge about consumer habits that can be used to influence future behavior of both consumers and the companies. Retailers, financial institutions, healthcare providers, insurance and pharmaceutical companies are just some of the corporations that keep tabs on how (and when) we spend our money. Just think about how much data we provide every day, via credit cards, airline elite memberships, health provider records, bank accounts, and all those affinity program tags that hang from your keychain.

So what exactly is this new buzzword? “Big Data is an imprecise term increasingly used to characterize the escalating accumulation of data — especially in data sets too large, too raw, or too unstructured for analysis using conventional techniques,” says Paul Bond, a partner at Reed Smith and member of its data security, privacy, and management practice group. Today, humans “create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day — an amount so large that 90 percent of all the data in the world has been created in just the past two years, explains IBM on its Big Data website. That’s the equivalent of the content that could be stored on 57.5 billion 32 GB Apple iPads, says data center ViaWest. (See “The Relative Size of Internet Data”.)

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