Stephanie Lucas, a California-based UX designer, was at home Saturday morning when she read Gizmodo’s investigation into dozens of companies selling data on millions of Americans labeled “actively pregnant” or “shopping for maternity products.”
Things got weird she went out to pick up her mail later that day.
Shuffling through her letters, she found a literal example of what she had read about in the form of a mailer from Buy Buy Baby, a chain of stores owned by Bed Bath & Beyond that sells products for infants and young children. The kicker at the bottom of the email read “Welcome to Parenthood.”
Parenthood wasn’t new to Lucas. She told Gizmodo the mailer was addressed to her daughter, who had just recently moved out.
She messaged her daughter, inquiring gently “if she had any news.”
Her daughter texted back: “Noooo lol.”
Lucas tweeted, “@buybuyBABY has your ad team learned NOTHING about what a terrible (& dangerous) idea it is to send these mailers without express consent of the consumer it’s directed to? My daughter is childbearing age & recently moved out. I got this today. (She’s not preggo, but just wow)”
“A big part of my job is educating designers about data privacy, so I know how this stuff works and I also know the horror stories,” the UX designer told Gizmodo.
Horror stories, indeed–Lucas’ account echoes the eerie tale of a teenager who was outed to her own father as pregnant by a mailed Target coupon for cribs, the subject of a 2012 New York Times story. Target had identified the teen as pregnant by her purchasing choices.
“Receiving this mailer unexpectedly shook me a little, because my daughter had been pregnant several years ago, unexpectedly. That same daughter—and her wonderful young son—had been living with me for a few years, and recently found a great job and moved into a new place with her boyfriend,” Lucas said.
“I wondered when I received that card what her future would be if she found herself pregnant right now.”
This kind of targeted advertising is not a new phenomenon. This info is extracted from multiple sources—whether that’s shopping data, purchasing data, or location data—but companies can still get it wrong. A 2019 report from The New York Times showed that maternity care wholesaler Mothers Lounge was sending maternity coupons to women, even though many knew they weren’t pregnant. The company claimed those women had previously subscribed to a list for maternity deals through a third-party company, though most could not remember ever signing anything like that.
A spokesperson for Bed Bath and Beyond told Gizmodo in an email statement that “Welcome to Parenthood” is part of a branding strategy announced last year. The company did not elaborate on what data it uses to send its mailers.
“Customers can receive product information and valuable coupons for future purchases, and also opt out of receiving our circulars, should they choose to do so,” the statement read. “We respect the privacy rights of our customers and follow all applicable laws.”
Gizmodo’s investigation found that 32 different data brokers were selling advertisers information on 2.9 billion profiles of U.S. residents. That massive number clearly includes a lot of overlap between these 32 different companies. Some claim their sets hold millions of users at the “Pregnancy & Maternity Life Stage.” Others focused on people “interested in pregnancy” or “shopping for maternity products.” Companies pay for this data based on how many user profiles they decide to blast with ads. It can cost as little as 49 cents to $2.25 per person.
Lucas’ work has focused on safety and privacy in tech, and she said that, ever since the scandal with Cambridge Analytica (just one of many privacy scandals involving Facebook) and the start of the #MeToo movement, many UX designers are trying to work to curb careless use of user data. “But if they are the only ones at the company advocating for good practices, they often don’t have the leverage to keep bad ideas like this from being executed.”
Otherwise, the UX designer said without any real regulatory incentive, it’s up to companies to adopt new ethical principles to restrict themselves in how they mess with user data.
“Companies need to understand the human cost of unintended consequences, as well as the long-term value of being ethical standard-bearers,” she said.