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Online Purchases Can Give You Away 243

Abhishek writes "New Scientist reports that Retailers could guess your age, sex, birthday and wedding anniversary simply from the types of gifts purchased for you online and their timing, according to a patent granted to online retail giant, Amazon. The information could be used to remind your loved ones of an impending special occasion and offer gift suggestions. Currently Amazon makes personalised suggestions to customers based on previous purchases by that customer, previous web pages browsed and comparisons between customers who have bought similar products. But the company may vastly increase its predictive capability in the future."
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Online Purchases Can Give You Away

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  • by Neil Blender ( 555885 ) <> on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @09:55PM (#11960994)
    Demographics can be reversed!
  • by maotx ( 765127 ) <> on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @09:55PM (#11960998)
    The patent describes software that automatically guesses when a gift is being purchased by extracting key words such as "birthday" or "anniversary" from an attached message. It might also note details such as the fact that the buyer has asked it to be gift wrapped or that the recipient address is different from the purchaser address, according to the patent, which was granted on 8 March.
    And people screamed over Google's ads with Gmail.

    Most worrying is that the patent appears to target children, says Karen Coyle of the public interest alliance Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in Berkeley, California.
    Isn't their a law regarding this? Something about consent from a parent if the child is 13 or younger?

    According to Amazon spokesperson Patty Smith, based in Seattle, Washington, these worries are "a little premature and a bit speculative". She adds that the company has no plans to implement the technology at present.
    For now.
    • Isn't their a law regarding this? Something about consent from a parent if the child is 13 or younger?

      Why should their be a law on guessing the age or birthday of someone?

      "Hey kid, you look 11, and judging by the fact that you're blowing candles out at a Chuck E Cheese, I will wager your birthday is TODAY!"

      "Lock him up and throw away the key!"

      No, thankfully the law is only regarding whether or not your can ask children under 13 for personal information.
    • Hehe, with a headline like that, I'm surprised they didn't shove the story into the YRO category, period.

      I personally see nothing wrong with the patent. They are just applying some logic to the data they already know. Sure, that may encourage more data collection, but an average person's XYZ Shopper's Rewards Club Miles card already does enough snooping.

      In fact, my beef is with the fact that this is a really broad patent. Any 15-year old could come up with the idea, if pressed to.
    • by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Thursday March 17, 2005 @12:06AM (#11961911) Homepage
      I hate to say it like this, but so? Amazon could have most of this information if they wanted by just running a credit report. Of course they don't want to pay for that, but it isn't exactly difficult to get one's information these days.

      Listen, if having my age, sex, birthdate, anniversary, purchasing history, and websites I A9'd for on file allows them to push the crap down and let float to the top only those things that I want, more power to them. If they could have known for example last week exactly what I happened to be looking for, and popped it up on their home page when I visited, I'm sure I would have bought my castanetes from them. Their price is only 2 dollars more than the place I bought them from, and that was after hours of searching. If they're willing to remind me that my friend's birthday is coming up, I could probably use the reminder anyway.

      A problem could arise if, say, there were something in there that were both incriminating and about to be used incorrectly in a court of law. But at some point we have to accept that this is not a public body and if it were that the courts wouldn't use circumstancial evidence lightly. But the risk of the government seraching my amazon records and deciding that I'm a criminal who is friends with other criminals is very low. I see a lot less risk there than, say, what they're trying to pull with the TSA.

      If amazon can put something in front of me that I have to have every time I go to their site, more power to them. I want things that I want, and I'm kind of tired of having to wade through the junk to find it.

  • by Kimos ( 859729 ) <> on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @09:56PM (#11961003) Homepage
    ... that if it's from a man it's probably being given/ordered late?
  • by davew666 ( 555119 ) * on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @09:56PM (#11961004)
    Stop buying me those Barbra Streisand DVDs for God's sake!
  • Hey! (Score:5, Funny)

    by TheKidWho ( 705796 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @09:57PM (#11961012) "It's time to purchase Rocco's true anal stories 29!"
    Wife: "WTF?"
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @09:58PM (#11961022)
    OH MY GOD!! They can find out my BIRTHDAY!! My ANNIVERSARY!! I demand PRIVACY!! Boycot RETAILERS!!

    This just in: you're not important enough for anyone to give a rat's ass about you.
    • This is why when I feel like making an online purchase, I catalog all offered items from a particular retailer, use a random number generator to pick one from the list, and finally have it sent to a completely random address.

      Sure, I'm paying for random crap for people I don't even know, but let's see them find a pattern in that!
  • All you have to do is buy 'inappropriate' gifts for your friends and it'll keep suggesting more of them!
    • All you have to do is buy 'inappropriate' gifts for your friends and it'll keep suggesting more of them!

      As long as your credit card isn't declined, they'll still be happy. They don't care why you're buying more just as long as they do. Either way the new system is doing it's job (getting the money from yours).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:00PM (#11961040)
    Your purchases of:
    1. Childrens clothing (young female)
    2. Childrens Videos (Mecha fighting robots IV)
    3. 'Fairy' Wand
    4. 'Young Princess' wings and headband.

    Indicate that you are a 40yr old Male, Single... probably naked right now...
  • Costs vs. Benefits (Score:4, Insightful)

    by AthenianGadfly ( 798721 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:01PM (#11961045)
    I wonder if the potential benefits would outway the possible embarrassments - I can think of lots of cases where a wrong guess could alienate customers, from reminding you to purchase a birthday gift for a loved one who has passed on to assuming someone is older than they really are. I wonder how good the software is and how subtly their guesses will be manifested to the customer.
    • It won't work (Score:5, Interesting)

      by benjamindees ( 441808 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:35PM (#11961299) Homepage
      I had a similar experience with HP. Somehow I got subscribed to a newsletter from visiting their website. It was mostly worthless, but I'd scan them every once in a while to keep up with their products and things.

      After a time the newsletter was re-vamped, and I got something saying they would now be suggesting articles and things to based on my "preferences". Somehow I remember it was an exciting new HP AI technology they were testing, and HP would be offering it to their business customers.

      At first, the suggested articles weren't very "personalized" and wading through a bunch of suggested articles that seemed to have nothing to do with my interests made me want to unsubscribe.

      All of a sudden, though, I began getting suggested articles like "Don't you think Linux sucks? Click here to read more" that would actually link to articles on the HP website talking about how Windows had a better ROI or something. Although the articles were real, the "suggestions" that pointed to the articles were obviously computer generated or pieced together from a list of pre-generated phrases.

      Needless to say, I've since unsubscribed to this most unhelpful service. I'd like to take this opportunity to give an obligatory "fuck you, Carly".
    • I suspect that they will pick a pretty high threshold before they send you anything adult that isn't scientific literature.
  • by H0NGK0NGPH00EY ( 210370 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:02PM (#11961054) Homepage
    Safeway has been doing this for years. Some friends of ours got a card in the mail shortly after they had a baby, congratulating them on their new addition, and offering them these fine baby products, available at Safeway. A year later they got a "happy birthday" card for the baby with some coupons and such.
    • by datastalker ( 775227 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:20PM (#11961195) Homepage
      Not only that, but try ordering a gift subscription of "Zoobooks" for someone else's kids. I now get mail for every child's product under the sun. I'm single, and childless, and it's annoying.

      However, it's only slightly less annoying than the mailing list I'm on where they've confused me with my Dad, and I get AARP and health care mail all the time.

      Put them together, and somewhere, there's a database that thinks I'm a 70 year old that's having tons of kids.

    • by michael.creasy ( 101034 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:45PM (#11961368) Homepage
      I ordered a gift from Victoria's Secret once. Now they send me their catalogues all the time. I really don't mind.
    • by segoy ( 641704 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:59PM (#11961448)
      My dot-com experience was with a company that administers a loyalty program. We would collect data from all of our partner businesses, and attach them to persons using the credit card numbers.

      From there we had simple heuristics to look for paterns (activity at a catering establishment and a purchase at a bridal shop?) and sell these profiles back to partner businesses for targeted advertisement.

      Outside of only paying in cash, and never using your legitimate information except where absolutely essential, I can't see much way to avoid it. Way things are going, it'll only get worse unless we enact legislation to prohibit that kind of activity.

    • I do my absolute best to make sure that my identity is NOT part of most transactions. This includes the grocery store, and anything I buy with cash, which is most items. In fact, just today, I had a little incident at a store where they overcharged me for something. I brought it to the attention of the cashier, and in order to give me a refund (cash, mind you), I had to sign a form with my name and telephone number. Usually I make a fuss about this, but I obliged- except I made sure that both were completel
    • Has anyone else gotten that Gillette razor with the disposable heads near/around their 18th birthday? I got one. A few years later when my brother turned 18, he got one. These bastard companies are in every facet of our lives! But the joke is on them, I use a Schick razor now! Hahahahah. Wait, did they merge?
  • Spam anyone? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by kryogen1x ( 838672 )
    Amazon would remind potential gift purchasers by sending them emails or an alert when they log on to the website.

    I hope they make this service optional.

  • by yuriismaster ( 776296 ) <> on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:02PM (#11961058) Homepage
    ... Or just ask them. As long as retailers don't ask for my social security number or other vital information, I don't mind giving up my gender, zip code, or whatever.

    I know the power of data collection, and how it can influence markets. If a bunch of /.ers visited Amazon and said "Hey, I'm a [computer|history|physics] geek" then I'm sure Amazon of all people would go: "Hey, let's pitch him SnowClash, Digital Fortress, or tech books."

    I personally don't want my potential anniversary date posted online (I have a female compatriot, just happen to be 17), but hell, if Amazon is willing to say "Hey numnuts, your anniversary is in a week. You better get her something!" then I'd be glad.


    Help a poor high-schooler? []
    • Wait a second...

      You have a girlfriend and you're posting on Slashdot? What is wrong with this picture?

      I just couldn't resist.
    • I personally don't want my potential anniversary date posted online

      Of all the pieces of information that were listed, I would think this would be the least controversial. After all, a wedding is a public event, and your anniversary is part of the public record.

      Incidently, in most states your social security number is right there on your marriage license and is also part of the public record. So if you think it's a big deal for someone to get your SSN, think again.

    • I personally don't want my potential anniversary date posted online (I have a female compatriot,

      So you don't live in a country consisting entirely of males then? I don't think that word means what you think it means.
  • Amazing. (Score:4, Informative)

    by bigtallmofo ( 695287 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:02PM (#11961061)
    Combine this with Geo-Targeting [] and it's amazing to know what web sites can find out about you without your consent.

    It's like an involuntary a/s/l check from web sites you visit.
  • Schneier's observations in ChoicePoint Says "Please Regulate Me" [] are very much to the point.

    And in the US you have no data protection rights. California's laws are advanced for f***'s sake!

  • And some people... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by homer_ca ( 144738 )
    Some people give away the information voluntarily like in a wedding or baby registry.
  • by Eternally optimistic ( 822953 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:04PM (#11961074)
    If someone buys a casket for you, will they stop spamming you ?
  • Previous art exists (Score:5, Informative)

    by houghi ( 78078 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:07PM (#11961100)
    The patent describes software that automatically guesses ...

    I got birthdaycards from several companies who also guessed my birthday by looking in the database. Also some emails from companies that did the same.
  • Well, I guess they *could* infer all sorts of things. However. it's nothing like the red light cameras they've now got set up on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.

    I mean, have you ever gotten a picture of yourself running a red light while picking your nose?

    Not a thing for a jury trial. Believe me.
  • by Dark Coder ( 66759 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:11PM (#11961130)
    Data: I wish to buy a selenium-based epoxy for repairing Spot's dinner plate. Make it quick as I'm in a temporal zone.

    Amazon 2501: I'm sorry, I'm not able to profile you. Please fill out these forms so we can get to know you better and allow the purchase to flow quicker (wink wink).

    Data: I'm an android. I have no data profile that you can use.

    Amazon 2501: Drat.

  • like least accurately predicted demographic..

    women who buy anime?

    fat 60 year old male sailormoon fans?

    hunter s thompson?
  • by Mr. Flibble ( 12943 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:18PM (#11961178) Homepage
    They dont have me! I don't have a wife or a girlfriend hahahahaha!!!



    Oh. Dammit. I don't 'any' either.

    I want to change demographics now.
  • It looks like you forgot your anniversary again! Would you like to:

    1. Buy an expensive gift?

    2. Buy a really expensive gift?

    3. Spend $50 for the special "have the invoice dated last week" HubbySaver(tm) feature?

    4. Cringe in abject terror?

    5. Sleep on the couch?

  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:21PM (#11961197) Journal
    Dear short, fat, balding, over-the-hill, poorly-dressed, divorced and lonely couch-potato. We have some wonderful discounts to fit in with your special life-style....
  • by MCTFB ( 863774 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:27PM (#11961244)
    If you read the article a little deeper, the general idea is that the software system described is used to guess the purchasing habits of friends and family based on stereotypes derived from information gathered from these messages.

    This is no different than someone assuming that if you are some random black guy who happens to like rap music that if you send a message to another friend with the keyword "rap" that it assumes that the recipient of that message must also like rap music.

    When marketroids are allowed to segment human beings into every imaginable stereotypical group they can think of, it may be useful for making those advertising dollars a little more efficient, but the cost to society is huge in that people stop sharing similarities as they are encouraged to go retreat to their own little islands of likeminded thinkers.

    It is almost like politics in America right now, where pollsters and political pundits have managed to reprogram much of the American electorate into foolishly believing that they are part of some narrowly defined group like the "religious right", or "extreme left" or that they are a "Reagan Republican" or a "NASCAR Dad".

    So, instead of society being encouraged to try to create art, ideas, products, services, government programs, etc. which try to serve the public good in a general way, the only thing you see nowadays is ridiculous levels of customization in everything around us that divide people rather than unite them.

    It is like people can now go to whatever news outlet they want whether it be the Communist Broadcasting Service or Fox News not to get an objective view on what goes on around the world, but rather to hear news with a distinct political spin to make themselves feel better about "being right" when it comes to their position on any given issue.

    This is just another step in the corporatization of America where people voluntarily give up their freedom and rational minds by being fooled into believing that allowing corporations to create a virtual caste system through modern marketing methods is actually a good thing.
    • This is just another step in the corporatization of America where people voluntarily give up their freedom and rational minds by being fooled into believing that allowing corporations to create a virtual caste system through modern marketing methods is actually a good thing.

      A bit off topic, but this touches on an idea that I had an idea just yesterday. I think they should revamp congress. Instead of having the states elect senators and representatives, let congress be made up of handpicked members from t

  • by CrayHill ( 703411 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @10:32PM (#11961280)
    I'm buying Christmas cards tomorrow....

    ...that'll throw them off my trail...
  • But the company may vastly increase its predictive capability in the future.

    I once bought a music theory book on Amazon. Shortly afterward, it recommended to me, on the basis of that purchase, that I buy the book called "Maestro" (Bob Woodward's book about Alan Greenspan.)

    Well, I thought it was funny.

    • by back_pages ( 600753 ) <back_pages@c[ ]net ['ox.' in gap]> on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @11:00PM (#11961457) Journal
      Before Christmas Amazon had the "gold box" recommendation thing (I think it was in beta). It would have 10 special offers just for me like once a week. It was so hilarious that I would wait till my friends were around to see what they suggested.

      I usually had 2 different pairs of gold earrings, at least 4 kitchen appliances (the most obscure you could think of - stuff like spice grinders and $250 coffee makers), and a power tool (usually a router or circular saw). They were all SO random that we were making drinking bets and stuff on what would come up next.

      I see that Amazon seems to have discontinued that service... wonder why.

      • Before Christmas Amazon had the "gold box" recommendation thing

        They've had it for years. I started seeing it several years ago, and always like to click through it for cheap thrills. It was very funny to see the stuff that they would try to sell me. The one thing I did get was a Silpat (look it up) for about half off. After a while it started to look like a lot of the things might be closeouts or overstock.

        I haven't seen the Gold Box for a while, but it may be something you only see when you shop on
  • Does a story [] count as prior art? Arthur C. Clarke did it with waterbeds and geosynchronous satellites.
  • This is terrific! In the future, companies won't even ask you to pick a gift for your loved ones, they will just automatically charge your card for an item that the database assumes your loved one wants and just sends it to them. You don't even have to be a part of the process anymore, let alone spend time getting to know your loved ones and what they want. Woohoo!
  • Hah! I'll show them. Little do they know I don't buy anniversary presents!

  • I hit their site, bunch of book listings shoved in my face. I noticed a "Why was this recommended?" link above each entry. Based on a record of my past searches, it decided I was "interested". I removed each entry.

    Got a generic page, with Harry Potter and..."On Bullshit" 1 122946/qid=1111027850/sr=8-2/ref=pd_csp_2/102-7806 153-5984110?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

    Presumably because of my penchant for fsking with busybody datamining/privacy invadin
  • by Repton ( 60818 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @11:05PM (#11961488) Homepage

    I think we're all missing something important, here: It's a patent.

    This means that ONLY Amazon is allowed to ruthlessly invade your privacy.

    So all you have to do is not shop at Amazon and you'll be safe from the data miners forever!

  • Amazon notices you buy expensive gender-reversed gifts on an annual basis and assumes it's your wedding anniversary... or possibly your mistress's birthday.
  • by mabhatter654 ( 561290 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2005 @11:44PM (#11961775)
    reminds me of the classic line in jurassic park where the mathmatician says "you patented it, slapped it on a lunch box so exicted that you could, you didn't think about if you should"

    I think that's why tech people like here at slashdot tend to be anti-technology when everybody else thinks it's great....basicly we're sickos that have already explored where pervasive stuff like this goes...but we're so far out there nobody will listen to us till it's too late. The biggest "oxymoron" I've had in that department was trying to explain why this type of techo-spying is so bad for employers and workers and such to a HR manager who has a religous Phd in administration and was a baptist minister... That showed me that even the brightest most well-intentioned people really don't understand just what they're giving away in the electronic/information era! When even the most scholared religous people don't "get it" how can you expect all the grandmas and grandpas out there to understand that we may have to stop using the internet for "everything" because to make it "safe" requires giving up too much of the personal freedom and responsibility we enshrined in the Constitution. Too many people don't really understand how and why the Constitution was was written by a bunch of left-wing nut jobs...even for their time... but it was that radical thinking that made it stand the test of time...remember the politicans first attemept at the US didn't work!

  • I can see it now:

    "Dear valued customer: Judging by your current online reservations at and corresponding purchases at, chances are your wife is about to discover yet again one of your torrid affairs! May we suggest purchasing a lovely bouquet of "forgive me" flowers from and a stunning heart shaped diamond pendant from

    This is a valuable opportunity to purchase her forgiveness in advance, and save countless nights on the couch! And since this is your fourt
  • by xbradlyx ( 867260 )
    The problem with Amazon's sugestions is that they don't know which books or cds you bought for yourself and which ones you bought for someone else. For example, I bought my mom a Mary Higgins Clark book last year and now everytime I go to Amazon I get all these recomendations for romance novels.
    • Well, as the article notes, Amazon gets more information to work with if you're buying it and explicitly asking Amazon to gift wrap it or include a special message, or if you use particular keywords in a submitted review.

      You probably aren't giftwrapping something bought for yourself, after all. Likewise, if the delivery address has a different name from the regular billing and shipping addresses... and depending on the nature of the gift and timing (e.g. habit of purchasing jewelry early February) there m
    • If you mark something as a gift when you buy it, they'll ignore it when they make recommendations, I believe. Also, you could go into the recommendations section and there's a page in there that will let you change your ratings and say "Don't use this for recommendations" and things like that. I went through and removed gifts with that and got much more appropriate recommendations afterwards.
  • by dr.badass ( 25287 ) on Thursday March 17, 2005 @01:14AM (#11962286) Homepage
    Amazon makes personalised suggestions to customers based on previous purchases by that customer...the company may vastly increase its predictive capability in the future.

    Given Amazon's unerring ability to recommend only books that already own, I imagine this means that they will begin recommending the ones that I have just added to the cart.
    • Given Amazon's unerring ability to recommend only books that already own, I imagine this means that they will begin recommending the ones that I have just added to the cart.

      In the next stage of assimilation, Amazon will automatically, predictively order books for you just hours before you would have ordered them anyway! And you'll like it!

    • Hmmm ... I've been impressed by the wild innacuracy of Amazon's guesses about my tastes. I've ordered lots of things from them. But when I look at their recommendations, my reaction is often "Why the @#*%$ would they think I'd be likely to buy that?"

      They have a looooong way to go before their guesses are accurate.

      (Of course, it may have something to do with my eclectic tastes. I recently ordered 3 CDs: one of traditional Quebecoise accordion and fiddle music, one of Chinese pipa music, and one a Grate
  • Yet one more reason not to mindlessly perpetuate the tradition of birthday celebration! []
    • Quite, it's the great American way, isn't it? Celebrate lots of things a year, but all of them increasingly commercialised to the point of losing speciality. Everything gets commoditized sooner or later.
  • Yahoo is the one I'm already steering clear of. When you start using their free email, they're constantly trying to hook you in to personal ads, financial info, groups, chat, etc. As you get into using all these services they're able to compile a pretty comprehensive dossier on you. No matter what BS you give them when you initially sign up, when you finally pony up with a credit card for enhanced mail, personals, etc., they've gotcha!

    What Amazon knows by tracking what books I buy for myself and others
  • Illegal in Europe ? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by heikkile ( 111814 ) on Thursday March 17, 2005 @05:33AM (#11963269) Homepage
    I suspect this would fall foul on the European data protection laws. If I have no business relationship with (say) Amazon, they have no right to collect my personal information. The fact that someone else buys a thing for me does no give *my* consent to keep info on me, to spam me, or to inform other people about my private life, like anniversaries.
  • by grahammm ( 9083 ) * <> on Thursday March 17, 2005 @05:51AM (#11963326)
    Before doing this, i think that Amazon could do well to improve their existing recommendations. Where I think they do badly is that if you buy an X, where X is something which there are several brands and/or models but which you are only likely to want one of, they recommend many alternatives which you might have considered when making the initial purchase but do not want now that you have made your purchase.

    Example from personal experience include USB SD/CF etc readers and foreign language dictionaries.
  • I'm shocked.

    I will only buy hemp products from hippies for cash in the future.

    naaaaah, I think I *will* buy that coolpix 8400 from amazon.
  • This is just so weird. As far as I remember, Emile Durkheim theorized how and why it is potentially valid to do this kind of population sampling, stat crunching, and infering a century ago. And in doing so, he was mostly finishing the work that Karl Marx started roughly 50 years before him.

    Why on earth should amazon be awarded a patent for reinventing sociology?
  • Amazon UK's data protection register entry, looks like it just expired too.

    Amazon []

  • I only buy sword fight movies, porn and sf books.
  • New Scientist reports that Retailers could guess your age, sex, birthday and wedding anniversary simply from the types of gifts purchased for you online

    Hell, I could guess your age, sex, birthday and wedding anniversary too.... I may not be right but I COULD guess.

    Is there no end to the pseduo science?!?!!?
  • How dare you try to make my life easier. I shall sick the dogs on you and all your kin. /me crawls back in hermit hole.

  • Hell, the casinos have all that information on me and more, including:
    what tables/machines I prefer at what time of day and day of week
    what drinks I prefer
    how I like my eggs for breakfast
    how often I pee

I THINK MAN INVENTED THE CAR by instinct. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.