The creepy mindset of online credit scoring
Usually I like to think through abstract ideas – thought experiments, if you will – and not get too personal. I take exceptions for certain macroeconomists who are already public figures but most of the time that’s it.
Here’s a new category of people I’ll call out by name: CEO’s who defend creepy models using the phrase “People will trade their private information for economic value.”
That’s a quote of Douglas Merrill, CEO of Zest Finance, taken from this video taken at a recent data conference in Berkeley (hat tip Rachel Schutt). It was a panel discussion, the putative topic of which was something like “Attacking the structure of everything”, whatever that’s supposed to mean (I’m guessing it has something to do with being proud of “disrupting shit”).
Do you know the feeling you get when you’re with someone who’s smart, articulate, who probably buys organic eggs from a nice farmer’s market, but who doesn’t expose an ounce of sympathy for people who aren’t successful entrepreneurs? When you’re with someone who has benefitted so entirely and so consistently from the system that they have an almost religious belief that the system is perfect and they’ve succeeded through merit alone?
It’s something in between the feeling that, maybe you’re just naive because you’ve led such a blessed life, or maybe you’re actually incapable of human empathy, I don’t know which because it’s never been tested.
That’s the creepy feeling I get when I hear Douglas Merrill speak, but it actually started earlier, when I got the following email almost exactly one year ago via LinkedIn:
Your profile looked interesting to me.
I’m seeking stellar, creative thinkers like you, for our team in Hollywood, CA. If you would consider relocating for the right opportunity, please read on.
You will use your math wizardry to develop radically new methods for data access, manipulation, and modeling. The outcome of your work will result in game-changing software and tools that will disrupt the credit industry and better serve millions of Americans.
You would be working alongside people like Douglas Merrill – the former CIO of Google – along with a handful of other ex-Googlers and Capital One folks. More info can be found on our LinkedIn company profile or at www.ZestFinance.com.
At ZestFinance we’re bringing social responsibility to the consumer loan industry.
Do you have a few moments to talk about this? If you are not interested, but know someone else who might be a fit, please send them my way!
I hope to hear from you soon. Thank you for your time.
Wow, let’s “better serve millions of Americans” through manipulation of their private data, and then let’s call it being socially responsible! And let’s work with Capital One which is known to be practically a charity.
Message to ZestFinance: “getting rich with predatory lending” doesn’t mean “being socially responsible” unless you have a really weird definition of that term.
Going back to the video, I have a few more tasty quotes from Merrill:
- First when he’s describing how he uses personal individual information scraped from the web: “All data is credit data.”
- Second, when he’s comparing ZestFinance to FICO credit scoring: “Context is developed by knowing thousands of things about you. I know you as a person, not just you via five or six variables.”
I’d like to remind people that, in spite of the creepiness here, and the fact that his business plan is a death spiral of modeling, everything this guy is talking about is totally legal. And as I said in this post, I’d like to see some pushback to guys like Merrill as well as to the NSA.