Chapter 2

With Power Comes Responsibility

Hewlett-Packard, Target, and the Police Deduce Your Secrets

How do we safely harness a predictive machine that can foresee job resignation, pregnancy, and crime? Are civil liberties at risk? Why does one leading health insurance company predict policy holder death? An extended sidebar on fraud detection addresses the question: How does machine intelligence flip the meaning of fraud on its head?

What would happen if your boss was notified that you’re allegedly going to quit—even though you had said this to no one? If you are one of the more than 330,000 who work at Hewlett-Packard (HP), your employer has tagged you—and all your colleagues—with a “Flight Risk” score. This simple number foretells whether you’re likely to leave your job. As an HP employee, there’s a good chance you didn’t already know that. Postpone freaking out until you finish reading the full explanation in this chapter.

This story about HP arrives in the wake of media outcry against Target after learning the big-box retailer had taken to predicting customer pregnancy. This media firestorm invoked misleading accusations, fear of corporate power, postulations by television personalities, and, of course, predictive analytics (PA). To my surprise, I ended up in the thick of it.

TV news programs strike like a blunt instrument, but often in the right general direction. The media assault was reactionary and chose to misinform, yet legitimate quandaries lurk below the surface. ...

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