Target’s Forsenic Services is who the FBI, Secret Service, BATF and others have turned to for help for two decades
December 29, 2013
“Unbeknownst to most, Target has a top-rated forensic services laboratory that provides forensic examinations, and assists outside law enforcement with help on special cases.” — Target’s Bullseye View
Just like how Sherlock Holmes was the consulting detective who was sought out by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade for his forensic expertise, Target has played Sherlock for the FBI, BATF, Secret Service, local law enforcement and even international agencies like the World Customs Organization. When they’re flumoxed, they head to Target — for the Forensic Lab Services.
Target’s forensic expertise has its roots in loss prevention. But unlike other corporations, Target pursued it to such a degree that they surpassed the capabilities of government crime labs. In a Washington Post article eight years ago, Nathan K. Garvis, Target’s vice president of government affairs at the time said “In many ways, Target is actually a high-tech company masquerading as a retailer.” Target has been actively involved with law enforcement since the mid-90’s but “intensified” after 9/11.
And Target’s high tech masquerading isn’t just about crime solving. Target is watching its customers very, very closely. Target was able to tell that a teenage girl was pregnant before her father even knew by profiling her purchases. Their data mining was so detailed and intensive that they noticed that pregnant women began buying certain vitamin supplements and things like unscented lotion. When they sent coupons obviously targeted to pregnant women, the father was incensed and complained to a Target manager that he felt they were trying to encourage his daughter to get pregnant. On a subsequent contact, the father told the Target manager that his daughter had already been pregnant at the time and he wasn’t aware of it. That’s the power of “metadata” that the government keeps telling us is not so important — at the same time they are building massive storage capabilities to capture and analyze it.
Target is by no means the only retailer profiling and data mining customers. Any and all data that companies get on you is sold to other corporations and given freely to the government without a search warrant. The basis of the decision on Friday by District Court Judge Pauley that gave the green light to NSA spying, was the government’s assertion that any information a third party has on you can be obtained without a search warrant. The government can bribe, buy or blackmail corporations or individuals to get that data. We have become commodities in a society of informants.
But Target’s cozy relationship with government raises ethical issues as well. Eight years ago, assistant professor of business ethics and public policy, Ernesto Dal Bó, said of Target’s Forensics Services, “It is a tricky issue when firms get too close to government. There is no reason we need to say that anything bad is happening, but we do need to watch.”
We’ve just seen one of the most massive thefts of financial data ever. Over 40 million credit card numbers, with their PIN data has been stolen. And they were stolen from a company that has been the leader in forensic sophistication for 20 years. A company the government relies upon to investigate crime. If you were a criminal hacker, sophisticated enough to get away with a crime of that magnitude, wouldn’t you know about Target’s Forensic Services? Wouldn’t another company be an easier mark?
As the business ethics professor said 8 years ago, Target’s close relationship with the government needs to be watched. If we see “anything bad is happening” — like using this theft to push for a biometric identification agenda — we should all start asking a lot of questions.