Editorial: Got a Few Minutes?

While visiting with relatives over the Thanksgiving weekend, I got an earful on what the average consumer – in this case, my stepfather and uncle – consider private information. My stepfather is mad at his supermarket because it started a loyalty card program that tracks what shoppers buy when they check out. It’s more the principle that a store he likes would do this than concern over it knowing what he buys, and he still refuses to sign up even though it could save him $10 or more a week.

Loyalty programs are a powerful way for companies to collect large amounts of data. They help retailers keep their customers faithful by offering discounts on merchandise, but companies who use the information are rewarded, too. For instance, one retailer found that buyers of cold remedies also buy fresh orange juice, so it boosted sales by placing juice displays in its pharmacy aisles. Suppose my stepfather buys two six packs of beer and a carton of cigarettes twice a week. Is it bad that the store knows this? No. But if it sells that information to a company he was hoping to get a job with or sought insurance from, it is. The chances for misuse are endless. Imagine law enforcement agencies monitoring the sale of such perfectly legal products as fertilizer to watch individuals because the possibility exists that they could make a bomb.

The discussion then led to the “60 Minutes” piece on how behavior is tracked online, though I agreed with Lesley Stahl’s comment: “We’re getting these customized sites that I think are wonderful. You’ll get the weather right where you are, travel information you want to know … all if you’re willing to give them what they ask for.” TRUSTe’s Lori Fena, however, said self-regulation won’t be enough because it can’t rein in companies that “don’t choose to give notice, access, consent and redress.”

• Be Careful What You E-Mail

Think your e-mails at work are private? The New York Times Co. fired 23 employees and warned several others last week for sending e-mail that was “inappropriate and offensive.” The American Management Association says 27 percent of major U.S. firms check their employees’ e-mails. Remember, the e-mail may be addressed to you, but you’re working on your company’s computer.

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