A connection between shopping habits, data mining and divorce?

The writer of a recent divorce-related article pointedly asks a question that most people likely do not consider in the lead-up to a split or in the aftermath of a marital dissolution, namely, this: “Should we have to live in fear of our retailers?”

Put another way: In the expanded era of data mining, in which companies are learning increasingly more about consumers and their habits, is there a legitimate fear that a person’s would-be private consumption habits might become legally discoverable and used against him or her in a family law proceeding?

There well might be. From high-asset divorce and child custody to alimony and child support, there is a potential for personal consumption habits to become a growing consideration that could become problematic if disclosed in front of a jury.

Retailers’ initiatives in identifying customers’ buying habits have been noted and well honed in recent years, the idea being that knowing about certain buying preferences enables more targeted efforts toward that customer through mailings, e-mail communications and so forth. Target, for example, seeks to identify consumers’ “life cycle events” (e.g., marriage, child birth, divorce) and then influence future shopping behavior and brand loyalty.

The question in the divorce context that some people are seriously asking: What if it becomes more common for such data to be sought for use in a custody proceeding, a determination of marital assets or an alimony matter?

If retailer-produced information reveals, for example, that a person is regularly buying large amounts of alcohol, that might be deemed relevant to fitness in a custody matter. If consumption patterns show a steady stream of high-priced clothing and jewelry purchases, perhaps the need for alimony is not so great as claimed.

Material concern with such things still resides with a distinct minority, but questions are being raised, and with a bit more frequency.

The “good news,” as a writer addressing the subject recently noted, is that “there are only a handful of companies in the world that have enough data about your purchasing patterns to draw any real insight from it.”

His advice: Shop only with businesses “that you trust to be responsible stewards of your data.”

Source: Huffington Post, “Divorce meets big data,” Richard Komaiko, March 2, 2012

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