(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

The Internet is a vortex of personal data — much of it not accurate, and some of it creepily so. As a result, we all encounter ads, recommendations and personalizations whose provenance we can’t possibly know. Why did Facebook recommend a psychiatrist’s patients “friend” each other? How does Google know where I live? If you send us your own data mysteries, we’ll attempt to sort them out … but since this is our blog, we get first dibs. Use the form at the bottom of this post to submit your own questions. 

Hi Intersect,

I fully understand that email-marketing is a shady, promiscuous business in which email addresses are bought and sold and generally distributed to anyone who asks. This is why we need services like Unroll.me to cut through all the garbage in our inboxes!

But since April I’ve been subscribed to a newsletter so specific, I can’t really imagine how I got on it. It’s the local alumnae email for King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and it is … relentless. For the record, I went to Syracuse (go orange) and my actual alma mater sends me far less email than this impostor does. Just this afternoon, I got an invite to a $25-per-person “post-event party” to celebrate some guy named Allan M. Kluger at some place called the Westmoreland Club.

Intersect: How did I end up on this mailing list? Also, can they take me off? If King’s College has granted me an honorary degree that’s cool, but otherwise this is a lot.

Thank you!
— Caitlin

Hi, uh, “Caitlin.”

I know why you are on this mailing list, but not precisely how. There are a couple of possibilities!

First, the why: I did a Google search for your full name and the college’s name, and one of the earliest results was a list of students from the same King’s College class of 2012 who donated to that year’s senior gift. One of the names on that list is the same as yours, so it appears that someone added your email to the alumni list, assuming it was the “Caitlin” who went to their school.

As for how, there are a couple of possibilities. Maybe the college straight-up guessed at her email while refreshing their donor lists. Maybe she gave them your email — which uses the name you both share — instead of hers to avoid being asked for money.

Colleges do use third-party companies and databases to track alums and donors — and to try to find the ones who have escaped their databases entirely — so it’s also possible that somehow your information ended up mucked up with hers in some data broker’s system, and provided to the college as a match for the person who actually went there, I guess.

I hear that you, “Caitlin,” are a journalist who co-writes an advice column about data mysteries on the Internet, so maybe you could help me out by calling the alumni office to see if they can help us out.

— “Abby”

Hi Abby (why is your name in scare quotes, that is your real name!),

Geeze, this is like the lmgtfy.com of help columns!

But yes, okay, point taken: I did place a call to the King’s College press office, where I talked to a really nice guy named John McAndrew. McAndrew assured me the college doesn’t buy marketing lists. (It’s a pretty small school.)

Instead, he explained, the school has long used a platform called Datatel to store and organize its alumnae information, including that of the Caitlin Dewey who graduated in 2012. But to send emails for location-based events — like, say, a D.C. meetup or a homecoming — they use this company called iModules, which does email design and marketing for universities. Some poor sod had to manually transfer the email addresses from Datatel to iModules, which is where the big switch happened: They left the numbers off the other Caitlin’s email address, so now I’m getting her messages.

Human error was always a possibility of course — but gotta say, this isn’t what I expected. I thought it far more likely that the error sprang from a data broker like Acxiom or Nexis.

In either case, thank you Abby. McAndrew tells me the error has been corrected, so now the other Caitlin is getting all those emails.

— Caitlin

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