You Can’t Connect Dots That Do Not Exist: Data-Driven Marketing and the NSA


As a professed privacy geek, I’ve been sopping up as much coverage of leaked NSA surveillance programs as I can find.  And my frustration with the mischaracterizations of “marketing data” and “data-driven marketing” has grown in direct correlation to the number of articles I’ve read.

Here just a few choice assertions that I’ve seen in the press over the past few days:

  • The NSA would not have been able to do any of the snooping it is accused of if companies weren’t collecting and mining consumer data for marketing and advertising purposes.
  • Knowing what the NSA can see, consumers should now think twice about giving information to brands they’ve always trusted.
  • If consumers “connect the dots” between the data that marketers collect and government access to that data, they will call for stricter laws governing marketing and advertising.

Can you spot the problem here?  That’s right, kids – you can’t connect dots that don’t exist.  Let’s break it down a bit further…

1.) The NSA isn’t interested in marketing data.

The data that the NSA allegedly requested and/or obtained from companies wasn’t marketing data.  It didn’t come from marketing databases.

In the case of Verizon, the NSA allegedly collected transactional “metadata” about calls across America and beyond.  It is important that the phone company collect that kind of transactional data so that it can make the phone system work and ensure that the right folks get billed for the right calls.  Or, put another way, it’s important to customers so that they can have a record of calls they are being charged for.  Who is it not important to?  Marketers.  Transactional telephony metadata isn’t the kind of thing you’d find in a marketing database because marketers don’t have, want or need access to that kind of information. It’s just not data to used in marketing to a customer.

In the case of the PRISM program, it appears that the NSA was collecting not transactional data about communications…but the actual the content of those communications.  Email, chat (video and voice), videos, photos, data stored in the cloud, VoIP, file transfers, login information, and social networking details.  It is important that companies collect that kind of communications content data so that they can make the Internet work – so they can provide exactly the communication channels that your emails, chats and VoIP calls traverse. Again, it’s important to consumers so they know their communications are being properly transmitted.  Who is it not important to?  You guessed it.  Marketers.  Marketing databases are full of data about the communications that consumers have with the brands they love – whether in the form of clicks on an ad, responses to a survey, or purchases in a store.  Marketing databases are not full of your online chats with your best buddy, your VoIP calls with your grandmother, or the videos of kittens that you posted on your favorite social network.

2.) New restrictions on marketers would do nothing to stop government snooping.

Precisely because the NSA isn’t interested in the data that marketers have, stopping marketers from collecting marketing data would have absolutely zero effect on the government’s ability to undertake the kind of surveillance we’ve learned about in either the Verizon or PRISM scenarios.  The data that makes the NSA salivate – the content of emails or search terms, for example – will still exist for the government to snoop even if marketers are not allowed to serve ads next to your email or search terms.  Any calls for new restrictions on marketing in the wake of the NSA leaks is misplaced, misguided, and born out of a basic misunderstand about how data-driven marketing works.

3.) Perception is reality.

So, marketers and the data that they use are clearly not the problem here.  That said, perception is reality.  Unless we correct these mischaracterizations about what data-driven marketers do and how we do it, we will get caught up in the Washington backlash against governmental intrusion.

The work of the Data-Driven Marketing Institute (DDMI) is more important than ever.  We have to tell the story loud and clear about the incredible benefits that data-driven marketing provides for consumers – and the powerful fuel it provides to the American economy.  We must continue to be steadfast in our responsible stewardship of marketing data and make sure the world knows it.  We have to make sure that consumers understand the choices they have about the use of their data, and how to exercise those choices.  And we have to be clear that the privacy concerns raised by government surveillance have nothing to do with data-driven marketing.

  1. Nitin S. Joshi

    June 13, 2013

    Great article Rachel, I wholly agree. The thing with Big Data is that you can always extrapolate false results based on the metadata you have. For example, you can take phone data and come up with a result that dialing a specific locality means you are apt to shop there, or ringing a restaurant repeatedly means you like that type of food and thus can be marketed to for a specific brand. The real value is to go past the noise of the data and glean what is truly valuable that can help improve or enhance existing services or products.

    • Rachel Nyswander Thomas

      June 17, 2013

      Thanks, Nitin – glad the post resonated with you. These kinds of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations about what data-driven marketers do are coming hard and fast these days, so it’s important to set the record straight so that we’re dealing in facts here in Washington. I hope you’ll take the pledge to help DDMI toward that aim at!

  2. Pete Austin

    June 14, 2013

    You logic fails right at the start, because at least some of the PRISM data was marketing data. It came from facebook, and they use all their data about you for marketing, right?

    • Rachel Nyswander Thomas

      June 17, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, Pete. To be clear, not all of the data that a company collects about a consumer is for marketing purposes. Companies need information about consumers for all sorts of reasons – first and foremost, to complete the transactions that their customers want them to, whether that means sending a product that’s been purchased, or making sure your “status update” gets posted. The kind of data collected for marketing purposes and housed in marketing databases isn’t what the NSA was after. The NSA allegedly was interested in transactional phone records and/or the content of electronic communications between individuals…not between marketers and consumers.

      And that’s a good thing, because DMA doesn’t think marketing data should be used for anything other than marketing purposes. DMA’s Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice clearly state that “Marketing data should be used only for marketing purposes” (See Article #32 at We understand that companies have to comply with valid legal requests…and the debate continues about whether the NSA’s alleged requests were valid or not…

  3. Pete Austin

    June 14, 2013

    Also this. Are you seriously saying that, although thousands of companies are reportedly involved, none of them ever pass marketing data along? “Thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence, four people familiar with the process said. ”


Your Comment