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Copyright

Title: The Numerati
Author: Stephen Baker
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Copyright: 2008
ISBN13: 9780618784608
Pages: 244
Price: $26.00
Rating: 88%

 

Supermarket discount cards, magazine subscription records, and web browser ďcookieĒ files all provide data collectors with valuable information about our activities, desires, and values. From this mosaic, marketers, business analysts, and security professionals attempt to derive actionable intelligence to target advertisements, identify relationships among employees at corporations, and uncover national security threats.

How We Act is Who We Are

Stephen Bakerís book The Numerati, named to invoke the legendary world-controlling Illuminati conspiracy, profiles a selection of the individuals and organizations who use advanced mathematics and link analysis to detect relationships and predict human behavior using data from disparate sources.

Baker divides his narrative into seven chapters to reflect roles humans adopt: worker, shopper, voter, blogger, terrorist, patient, and lover. He offers background information about each industry with respect to behavioral modeling and recounts his conversations with leading analysts who study human behavior in the seven roles. Most of the analysts work for private corporations but, in the case of the voter and terrorist roles, the individuals ply their trade for governmental and political entities.

The Numerati is perfect for airplane reading. Baker offers a 30,000-foot view of the technologies used to track and analyze human behavior, dipping only occasionally into non-technical details so readers can get a feel for the data gathered, analytical techniques applied, and insights garnered. Even though Bakerís coverage is occasionally superficial, the book does contain enough information about the companies and personalities involved to serve as a resource for journalists who cover the information industry or members of the public who are curious about what information is collected and how it is used.

Glossing Over Critiques

Even though I like Bakerís work, I feel The Numerati falls down in two areas. The first area is the lack of substantive analysis regarding the privacy implications of behavior tracking and predictive analysis. Baker does mention the issues involved and notes techniques, such as one-way data hashes and aggregation, used to eliminate personally identifiable information from some analyses. He also interviews a researcher who, after he developed software tools to alert casino management to potential employees who could be part of a cheating team, realized the implications of his technology and became a privacy activist. I realize that it would be easy to turn the book into another re-hash of the existing privacy literature, but I think Baker settled on too little coverage instead of too much.

My second issue with the book is the lack of even a passing nod to Bruce Schneierís critiques of data-driven terrorist profiling. Schneierís book Beyond Fear (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and his continuing work through Counterpane (now a subsidiary of British Telecom) call into question the possibility of discerning the few terrorists among us without conjuring a storm of false positive results. Bakerís interview with the National Security Agencyís lead analyst describes the problem but sheds no light on why that task is exponentially harder than determining which pop-up ad to show someone who visits a particular web site.

Conclusion

Even taking those two substantial critiques into account, The Numerati is worth your time and attention. There are far worse ways to spend the five hours between Dulles and LAX.

 

Curtis Frye  

 

 Curtis Frye (cfrye@techsoc.com) is a Microsoft Office Excel MVP, freelance writer, and corporate entertainer. For more information on his Excel books and free help files, visit www.thatexcelguy.com. If youíre looking for a keynote speaker or entertainer to kick off a sales meeting or provide after-dinner entertainment, visit www.curtisfrye.com.