The Numerati: How Number Crunchers Change Our Lives

Funny how old associations come up. About two weeks ago, I was up near Tysons Corner for an appointment. I was early so I dropped by the Borders across the street. As I was waiting for the cashier with my CD of bluesman John Lee Hooker, I noticed one of those stand-up photo advertisements. The face looked awfully familiar.

It was. It was Steve Baker, a BusinessWeek senior writer with whom I have worked off and on for 20 years. He was in Mexico City when I was in Moscow and later he was in Pittsburgh while I was in Cleveland. The latter association brought on occasional barroom discussions of rust belt economics and the many sins of our New York editors.

Steve’s done very well. The ad was for an excellent book he’s just published about “The Numerati,” a class of math experts who quietly orchestrate the massaging of the zillions of bits of data about us. We generate the stuff every time we use our cell phones or search Google, use a grocery loyalty card or whisk through a toll booth using a Smarttag.

Steve, who has specialized in technology reporting for more than a decade, draws intriguing portraits of the numbers class, many of whom are non-Americans from Syria, Pakistan, or France. How they use the tremendous cache of data about us will make a huge difference in our future lives.

Even in Virginia. In his section on politics, Steve zeroes in on how pollsters and campaign officials used and massaged data in the state gubernatorial race in 2005 to get money or reach out to undecided and critically important voters. How such data will be gathered and analyzed will be extremely important in the tight presidential race this year between Barack Obama and John McCain, especially in the Old Dominion, which is a swing state. Data management will probably be less important in the Mark Warner versus Jim Gilmore senatorial contest, as an outcome favorable to the Democrat seems preordained.

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Peter Galuszka

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14 responses to “The Numerati: How Number Crunchers Change Our Lives”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Peter — a fascinating piece. I suspect that many Virginians would not be comfortable with such high tech data mining and marketing if done by a commercial enterprise. Privacy concerns seem very strong.

    Do people feel differently if this is done by political parties or interest groups? If not, do political candidates have greater rights to mess with one’s seemingly private information? Or is too just a figment of some people’s imagination? Is this all public information that has been carefully assembled?


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Good questions and I do not know the answers. The author may have a better idea.
    My guess is that whether they like it or not, tons of personal information have been floating around for years. Hardly new stuff, but what is new is the growing sophistication in analyzing and interpreting the personalities.
    Ezample: I’m not religious, but I wanted to read a book on religion. For convenience sake, I went to Amazon and got the book. Hence, I was put into some kind of data bank for Bible Thumpers, which really annoyed me. Can’t I chose and read in peace?

    Peter Galuszka

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    A somewhat related issue – North Dakota law prohibits the use of prerecorded phone calls delivering political messages. A company based in Virginia is hired to deliver the same to North Dakota voters. Despite the First Amendment and interstate commerce issues, the North Dakota supreme court upholds the state law. See, e.g., State ex rel. Stenehjem v., Inc., 712 N.W.2d 828 (N.D. 2006).

    Could Virginia give citizens the right to opt out from data mining, including data mining for political purposes? Is there more harm in assembling little bits of information about people than just leaving those bits floating throughout commerce and government records?


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    “…do political candidates have greater rights to mess with one’s seemingly private information?”

    Each candidate for office in Virginia is entitled to what is known as The State Voter File. It is obtained, for a fee, from the state voter registrar.

    It is essentially a 4-year history of a persons voting trends…it doesn’t tell anybody who you voted for but it does tell a candidate if a person voted in a specific election….i.e., the Republican Primary, the Democratic Primary, the Presidential Election, etc.

    If you only voted in a republican primary, that would explain why you only get mail from republicans.

    The list also contains your address, SSN, etc.

    If you are running for statewide office you get the info. on every voter in the state. If you are running for local office you only get the data on voters in your district.

    Also, as far as I know, there is no way to have your name removed from the list like you can with the No Call List, etc.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Name, address and SSN to every politician running for office?

    And what can you get on line with that information besides the keys to everyones bank account?

  6. E M Risse Avatar


    When you are going to be in Cville, set up a session with Bill Lucy who put together the very first — as far as I know — of these targeted get out the vote phone banks for RFK in the Indiana Primary.


  7. Anonymous Avatar


    I don’t think the list has the SSN….but it contains enough data to cause a lot of damage in the wrong hands.

    Of course, anyone who buys the list signs waiver saying that if they use it for illegal purposes they can be prosecuted, etc., etc….

  8. Gentle readers:

    You have only scratched the surface here. If you happen to have a GMail account – send me an e-mail at Groveton@GMail.Com. In the body of the e-mail make a reference to the two of us going fishing for striped bass (i.e. rockfish). I’ll send you a reply. When you get the reply look at the sponsored links. What do you see?

    This is what I got when I sent an e-mail to my son suggesting that we go rockfish fishing in October.

    Anti-fishing ads from PETA
    Samoan fishing adventures
    Fly fishing courses
    And…since I signed it Dad…an advertisement for a book called A Dad’s story.

    ALl that from the body of an e-mail. Somewhere, a database has an entry with me and my son including our names, our relationship, the fact that we love to fish for rockfish and the fact that he is studying at the University of Temmessee. He went to school on Aug. 15. Being a good Dad ho misses his son I have sent him 15 e-mails with updates as to what is going on back home. How many database entries have been built from these e-mails. I’ll give you a hint. My son told me he was pledging a fraternity. The ads started appearing for scales. Industrial scales. I guess the advertisers felt that young men in fraternities often fing the need to weigh things. ANd if he would have bought one of those scales, he would have probably been added to some other, less freindly database.

    Everything you write is being parsed, sorted, collated and saved in a database about you.

    As far as knowing your name? One of the ost common topics on which people search is their own name. Find a long list of historical search list arguments and sorth them by common agrument. WHat argument is near the top, below weather and the Redskins? Why, it’s your name. You just couldn’t help but look for personal references in cyberspace. Show me all the result files with JAmes A. BAcon repeatedly used as a search argument. Then let’s go see if “inflatable dolls” were among the things being searched for in these search sequences.

    If you are online, you are pretty much toast.

    Go to my Facebook account. Ask to be my friend. I’ll proably just say yes to any and all asking that day. Then yiu are in. Look at the pictures. Look at the friends. Even some of you are on my friends list. ANd you on mine.

    Privacy is dead.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    A follow-up to Groveton’s last comments.


    Google promises EU better privacy rules
    Tuesday September 9, 9:17 am ET
    By Constant Brand, Associated Press Writer
    Google tells EU regulators it will introduce better privacy rules

    BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — Google Inc. said Tuesday it will further cut the amount of time it stores data about users’ search requests, to meet European privacy demands.
    Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy adviser, said the company will reduce the time it stores search information from 18 months to nine. Google introduced an 18-month limit in 2007.

    The change, which applies to Google’s search Web sites worldwide, “is a significant improvement in privacy terms and it puts us ahead of the rest of the industry,” Fleischer told reporters in a conference call.

    Fleischer also announced that additional changes are being made to Google’s “Suggest” application, which helps users along by recommending search terms based on what they’ve already typed. He said Google logs 2 percent of data collected on such searches, but said such records now will all be erased after a 24-hour period, starting this month.

    The announcements were meant to appease EU data protection officers who have questioned the need for search engines to keep records of their users’ behavior. However, in a separate report submitted to the EU’s group of national data privacy officers explaining the changes, Google said the new rules would “have costs” for Google’s ability to improve its services by delivering more relevant search results and advertisements.

    Officials at the European Commission had no immediate reaction to the announcement.

    Google had long argued that its retention period complied with EU data privacy rules, but it moved in 2007 to limit data logged from searches to 18 months. Competitors Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have also limited the time they retain such data. Microsoft keeps search data for 18 months and Yahoo for 13 months.

    Peter Hustinx, the EU’s top data protection supervisor, has also raised concerns that Google’s Street View map and imaging feature could pose privacy problems as well when it is launched in Europe. After earlier privacy complaints, Google has begun automatically blurring faces of people captured in street photos taken for the program in the United States.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    if ya’ll really want to soil your shorts… take note that the same license plate scanning technology that has matured to the point that is can be used reliably for open road (normal highway speed) tolling… is… also in use for “looking” for “violators”….

    then.. combine that with the advent of very cheap GPS tracking technology… the size of a matchbox that can be placed on your vehicle and will report your every movement….

    I bring up the license plate technology specifically to point out that if you are a person who thinks that the ability of the government to “scan” license plates is troublesome… two points:

    1. – police have for years used their own “eyes” to eyeball plates… so that part has only changed in terms of the technology “supersizing” their eyes…

    2. – that cow got out of the barn back when we decided to require every car to have a unique identification – i.e. the plate.

    It’s too late to talk about prohibiting the government from doing certain things… we all know.. that if the data exists and someone with the right ‘clearance” can get it….

    so… my point..

    we live in a different world and there is no “go back” machine…

    deal with it… proactively – not reactively….

    lest… you fall gently into that role of railing against the demise of buggy whips…


  11. I got a little board so I decided to see what I coukd find on LArry Gross. It seems:

    1. Larry has a wife named Kristi.
    2. Larry has a dog maned Nadge
    3. They operate Larry and Kristi Gross Outings…(540) 786-6843.
    4. Kristi is active in Christ Episcopal Church, Spotsylvania, VA
    5. Kristi believes she is descended from Brig. Gen. William Tatum WOFFORD – a confederate general killed in Fredericksburg.
    6. Larry has lived his entire life in the Freddricksberg area and is a member of the Rappahannock Defense Committee ehich sucessfully derailed the propoed Salem Church Dam.
    7. Larry has been a member of the Sierra Club sine before 2000.
    8. Larry and wife Kristi are 30 year residents of Spotsylvania County.
    9. Larry is featured in A Tale of Two Dmns by Hal Wiggins. In an earlt part of the book, Larry accues Hal of bfing a god damned dan builder. As many of un on baconsrebellione will attest – the character assination was wrong and ultimately corrected.
    10. Larry is relative young looking man with mid to longist straight brown hari, he wers substantial glasses and can often be seen with a baseball cap.
    11.Larry was once a member of the Sierra Club’s Rappahannock Executive Committee (circa 2006).
    12. Larry always tries to be the person that his dog thinks hie is.
    13. He can be reached at Gross.Larry@GMail.Com
    14. He lives in the 22553 zip code
    15. Larry Gross was / is the at-large member for tyhe Trasnportation Advisory Group – appointed by the FAMPO Policy COmmittee
    16. I have Lary’s full address but will not reveal it.
    17. However, his 3.0 bedroom, 2.0 bath house sits on a bit over 8 acres.
    18. It’s woth about $395,000 – which isn’t too bad for a retired guy.

    I imagine that I can find more if I get bored.

    There are no secrets.

  12. 1. RH lives in the Marshall District of Faquier County.
    2. He does not get cell coverage at his home.
    3. RH lives in Delaplane
    4. In 2001, RH was using
    5. Ray (and his wife Margaret) operate AShby Glen Fam in Delaplane VA. THe provide customsawing, hardwood mowing and custom mowing. They may be reached at or (540) 364-3512
    6. Ray owns a 1967 sailboat named Repunzel which he saild primarily in the CHeseapeake Bay
    7. No homes for sale or recently sold on Ashby Glen Ln but a couple going between $750,000 and $1M just around the conner on Cobbler Valley Ln. Here is a particularly lovely parcel for a scant $9M …

    There are no secrets.

  13. I stand by my comments.

    there is no “go back” machine.

    the “facts” presented.. are not all true and have changed…and some major ones not yet revealed.

    look some more…


  14. Larry:

    I agree that there is no “go back” machine. I just think people should be cognizant of the amount of information openly available on the internet. For those of us who came of age prior to the internet the ability to find out facts about someone on the internet can be a shock.

    In politics, this is getting a little scary. Some very rough math:

    1. There are 7.5M people in Virginia.
    2. If half are of voting age then there are about 3.8M voters.
    3. There are 100 state delagates.
    4. If the districts are equal then there are 38,000 voters in each delagate’s district.
    5. About 1/2 of all voters vote.
    6. 19,000 voters will vote in a delagate’s district.
    7. 10,000 voters will win an election for delagate.

    Using data readily available on the internet along with data mining software and personalized e-mails, telephone polls, etc. I believe it is quite possible to reach 10,000 voters in a delagate district with a very personal message emphasizing the candidate’s positions on topics of importance to the voter.

    The question is whether this is manipulation or marketing. For example, assuming that you either own or owned a dog a candidate could make it a point to send an e-mail of their family to you with their pet dog prominately displayed. In my case, there would be no need. A picture with the candidate holding a fishing pole would be much more appealing to me.

    BTW – I like the new blogger ID of Larry G and the picture. You are learning. ๐Ÿ™‚

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