The Digital VCR
Sunday, May 27, 2001
Many of us are concerned about the lack of privacy on the Internet...how websites track us using "cookies" and intrusive forms that ask as many questions as they think they can get away with. And some of us even battle against the Internet companies who want to invade our privacy, by recommending that people not fill out forms, or at least fill them out with inaccurate information. But the uncomfortable truth is, that isn't the worst of it.
Off the Internet, you don't have any privacy, either.
Let me throw two small examples of how your privacy in the "real world" is diminishing every day; and remember, these are only two small examples of the many ways your off line privacy is becoming non-existent. First, let's turn on the TV...
The Bonus Card
Surely you've heard of these things; they are being sold now by a couple of companies (TiVo, ReplayTV, and most recently UltimateTV by, of all horrifying concepts, Microsoft, the world leader in privacy invasion) and are basically nothing but sophisticated computers with large hard drives attached, where the recording is sophisticated enough to permit you to "pause" a program that's running now (say, when the telephone rings) and pick it up later, playing back and recording at the same time. These things also allow for recording multiple channels at once, and even "learn" what you like to watch after a while and tape shows without your instructions that it thinks you might like. Pretty cool, eh? And all this for only around $500!
One small thing no one is mentioning...these recorders need to make a telephone call to the central computers every evening, obstenciously to download the next day's or week's television schedule. Truth is, though, they are doing much more than that - they are providing the central computers with information on everything you watch.
Not just what you watch, but how you watch. Do you fast-forward through commercials? The box will let the home office know. Is there a specific commercial you watched twice? Ditto. Did you program the machine to record the entire evening of the Playboy Channel? The company can know all about it, and use that information to target-market to you.
And remember, this isn't just data collected in the aggriage...this is information tied directly to you; to your credit card, to your name, address, telephone number...to you.
Now consider the newest player...Microsoft. As anyone who made the mistake of providing an email address to any address at Microsoft knows, MS loves to market. Some say they are better at marketing than at innovation, preferring to hard-sell less-than-stellar technology. But sell they do...Unsolicited Commercial Email is only one of the many invasive methods Microsoft uses to part us all from our money. Now consider the implications of Microsoft knowing what television programs you enjoy...or what advertising you actually watch.
And they admit clearly that they collect, "Operating Information," and define it in their privacy statement as, "include[ing] the websites you have chosen to access and the television channels you have selected to view through the WebTV Network service." In other words, the Biggest Brother of all is watching you...and wants you to trust that they have your best interest at heart, and won't divulge your personal information in connection with your Operating Information.
But what if they are not being truthful, and the information really is being collected, maintained, and sold? Won't the government protect you? We'll get to that in a minute. But first, let's go to the grocery store...
Hey, whaddya mean?
The local Giant supermarket has become pretty much the last large chain in our area to introduce a savings "club," in this case the Giant Bonuscard. Since most of the "clubs" work the same way, we're pretty safe in picking on Giant - just assume that whatever supermarket chain bonus savings plan card you have in your wallet works pretty much the same intrusive way.
When you purchase items at the grocery, your card (or "key") is scanned into the computer; now everything you purchase, should it be a "Bonus Buy," is automatically reduced in price. And the system automatically gives you rebate coupons when you purchase a set amount of groceries using your Bonuscard...and you even receive checkout coupons based on your use of the Bonuscard. Wow...could anyone ask for more?
If all this sounds familiar, it's because it is - it is exactly the same savings setup that Giant used to offer without requiring a Bonuscard...Bonus Buys, 5% rebates, etc., etc. So why should Giant go through all the trouble of setting up a system where the card has to be scanned?
Simple...again, we're back to knowing what you purchase. Not what the bulk of their customers purchase, but what YOU purchase. Buy diapers? Ah-HA - you have a child, and can be marketed on baby supplies. Purchase Depends? Excellent...you've got a medical condition they can market to. What brand of toothpaste you purchase...what magazines and books...what video tapes...what frozen foods...what pastries...what medicines...
All of this is, over time, capable of generating a relatively specific profile of you and your family, one which can hopefully be used to separate you from more of your money.
Now, as part of Giant's "Policy and Exclusions," they promise that "the information we collect from the Giant Bonuscard program will be held in the stricest [sic] of confidence." On the flyers, they say they "value your privacy" (well, sure they do, since they plan on making more money off of violating it). They also say it is their corporate policy not to share the information...but with all of the "national business partners" they are coupling with, it doesn't make a lot of sense for them not to pass on some information, or at least target the partners' services to those most likely to purchase it, so I find it difficult to believe any of this "trust us, we're good guys" stuff. The whole idea is for the company to make more money, not to save you any.
Add this to the general decline in politeness by the staff of the entire service industry (only today, a clerk at Giant gave me "lip" because I refused to allow her to touch my house and car keys to get to my card as I attempted to scan it in - sorry, youngster, but no one touches my personal belongings, not even in the course of invading my privacy!), and you have an invasive and unacceptable level of complete lack of privacy. (Think about this for a second...if anyone at the corporate headquarters at Giant should read this web page, they can discover today's date by looking at the top of the page, gather my name from the bottom of the page, gather additional clarifying information from the Personal pages, access their database to look up my "Bonus Card" number, and then proceed to review my shopping history to determine at what Giant store I shopped today, which isle number I was at, and thereby which clerk was a smart-*ss to me! Doesn't that send shivers down your spine? And you thought Microsoft was invading your privacy!)
And let's not forget that in 1998, the "sister" Giant Foods (Ahold USA owns "both" the Giant/Martins and Giant/BigG corporations) only stopped selling their pharmacy perscription information to a third-party company after the Washington Post ran an article detailing the practice and their customers howled in protest. Is this a corporation you can trust when purchasing that pack of Trojans?
It Gets Worse, Though
Look, I'm not trying to be a pain, but the whole idea of marketing is to separate you from the cash in your wallet. This is not a "bad thing," but there should be some rules about how it's done, and maybe even some politeness while it's being done. It's one thing for a company to present its product in the best possible light - it's another thing entirely for a company to know so much about your psychological makeup that it can design promotions that are almost impossible for you to resist. It's one thing for a grocery store to give you low prices, but an entirely different thing for that store to profile you and use psychological methods to get you to spend more. It's one thing for a video recorder to record one show while watching another, but an entirely different thing for the company to use your personal tastes to target advertising you would find more difficult to resist. And I really hate getting advertisements targeted to my three-year-old daughter...good lord, she's already in these databases!
Thank Heavens for The Long Arm of the Law
Now just for a moment, imagine that the digital recorder service and the food chain pool their information about you...think about how much they would know about your tastes, your desires, even your dreams now. And then we'll pretend that your credit card company shares the information on what you purchase with your credit card to this mix...and maybe your large video chain...and then your pharmacy...even your dry cleaner...and auto repair shop...
Are you worried yet? You should be.
Fortunately, you say, there is a Constitutional "Right to Privacy," which will protect you - if you choose, you can opt-out of all of these company's systems, and have them immediately remove from their systems any information they have acquired on you. You can even stop them from selling your information to anyone without your expressed consent, right?
Wrong. On ALL counts.
There are currently no federal laws protecting your right to keep your own information private. Worse still, the companies who are trying to separate you from your cash are making darned sure by using corporate contributions and heavy lobbying, that there won't be. I mean, after all, if there were, they wouldn't be able to make as much money by immorally using what you eat, wear, or use in the "privacy" of your own home against you, now would they?
They say, "Trust us...we only want to make life easy for you." I say, bullpucky...they only want to take more of your hard-earned cash by whatever means possible.
So there is no protection as to what they can and cannot do with this information; at any time they can easily change their "corporate policy" and sell YOUR personal information to anyone they choose, for any reason they choose, at any time they choose. And there's not a damned thing you can do about it.
Your own home doesn't feel so private any more, now does it?
The WebTV Network Service Statement of Privacy
Giant Food Stores Policy and Exclusions Page:
And, as always, watch out for these sites setting persistant cookies on your browser, so they can track your web movements.
Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering:
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These are the personal ramblings of Charlie Summers; L.O.F. Communications is not responsible for anything stupid I might say. It will, however, take credit for any flashes of genius I might have.