See Inside September 2008

Data Fusion: The Ups and Downs of All-Encompassing Digital Profiles

Mashing everyone's personal data, from credit card bills to cell phone logs, into one all-encompassing digital dossier is the stuff of an Orwellian nightmare. But it is not as easy as most people assume

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A  few years ago I bought a latte at Starbucks on the way to the airport, parked my car and got on a flight for the U.K. Eight hours later I got off at Heathrow, bought a prepay chip for my cell phone and went to buy a ticket for the train into London, when my credit card gave up the ghost and refused to work anymore. Not until I got back to the U.S. did I find out what had happened. Apparently, the small purchase at Starbucks, followed by the overseas purchase of the cell phone card, had tripped some kind of antifraud data-mining algorithm in my credit-card company’s computer. It tried to call me, got my voice mail and proceeded to blacklist my credit card.

What I found so exasperating about the entire experience was that the computer should have known that the person using my card in England was me. After all, I had bought my plane ticket with that same card and had flown with a major U.S. carrier. Aren’t all those databases supposed to be tied together?

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