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You call it privacy invasion, I don’t.

So it looks like the paranoid came to my last post about loyalty cards complaining about the invasion of privacy that these cards come with. Maybe they expected that the myth of the Free Software developer who’s against all big corporation, who wants to be off the grid, and all that kind of stuff that comes out when you think of Stallman. Well, too bad as I’m not like that, while still considering myself a left-winger, but a realist one that cannot see how you can get workers happy by strangling the companies (the alternative to which is not, contrarily to what most people seem to think, just accepting whatever the heck they want).

But first an important disclaimer. What I’m writing here is my personal opinion and in no way that of my employer. Even if my current employer could be considered involved in what I’m going to write, this is an opinion I maintained for years — lu_zero can confirm it.

So, we’ve been told about the evil big brother of loyalty card since I can remember, when I was still a little boy. They can track what you buy, they can profile you, thus they will do bad things to you. But honestly I don’t see that like it has happened at all. Yes, they can track what you buy, they might even profile you, but about the evil things they do to you, I still have not heard of anything — and before you start with the Government (capital and evil G), if you don’t trust your government, a loyalty card programme is the last thing you should be worried in.

Let’s have a look first at the situation presented by the Irish Times article which I referred to in my first post on the topic. At least, they have been close to reality enough, so instead of going the paranoia of the Big Brother, they simply noted that marketeers will know about your life, although they do portray it as only negative.

Before long, he had come up with a list of 25 products which, if bought in certain amounts and in a certain sequence, allowed him to tell if a shopper was pregnant and when her due date was.

In his book, Duhigg tells the story of a man who goes into a branch of Target near Minneapolis. He is not happy as he wants to know why the retailer has suddenly started to send his high school-going daughter coupons for baby clothes and cribs. He asks the manager if the shop is trying to encourage very young girls, such as his daughter, to get pregnant.

The manager is bemused but promises to look into it, which he does. He finds that this girl had indeed been targeted with all manner of promos for baby products so he calls the father several days later to convey his apologies and his confusion.
That’s when the man tells him that when he raised the issue with his daughter, she told him she was pregnant. The retailer took a lot of flak when the details of its data mining emerged but the controversy blew over.

So first I would say I find it utterly ludicrous that sending coupons for “baby clothes and cribs” would “encourage very young girls […] to get pregnant”. I would also suggest that if the girl is so young that it’s scandalous that she could get pregnant, then it might indeed be too soon for her to have a loyalty card. In Italy for instance you have to be 18 before you can get a loyalty card for any program — why? Because you expect that a minor still does not have an absolutely clear idea of what his or her choices are going to mold their future as.

Then let’s see what the problem is about privacy here… if the coupons are sent by mail, one would expect that they are seen only by the addressee — if you have no expectation of privacy on personal mail, it’s hard to blame it strongly on the loyalty programmes. In this case, if you would count the profiling as a violation of privacy of the girl, then you would expect that her father looking at the coupons would be a bigger invasion still. That would be like reading a diary. If you argue that the father has a right to know as she’s a minor, I would answer that then she shouldn’t have the card to begin with.

Then there is the (anonymous, goes without saying) comment on my post, where they try to paint loyalty schemes in an even grimmer light, first by stating that data is sold to third party companies at every turn… well, turns out that’s illegal in most of Europe if you don’t provide a way for the customer not to have his data sold. And turns out that’s one of the few things I do take care of, but simply because I don’t want junk mail from a bunch of companies I don’t really care about. So using the “they’ll sell your detail” scare, to me, sounds like the usual bull.

Then it goes on to say that “Regularly purchasing alcohol and buying in the wrong neighbourhoods will certainly decrease your score to get loans.” — well, so what? The scores are statistical analysis of the chance of recovering or defaulting on a loan, I don’t blame banks for trying to make them more accurate. And maybe it’s because I don’t drink but I don’t see a problem with profiling as an alcoholic a person that would be buying four kegs of beer a day — either that or they have a bar.

Another brought point? A scare on datamining. Okay the term sounds bad, but data mining at the end is just a way for businesses to get better at what they do. If you want to blame them for doing so, it’s your call, but I think you’re out of your mind. There are obvious bad cases for data mining, but that is not the default case. As Jo pointed out on Twitter, we “sell” our shopping habits to the store chains, and what we get back are discounts, coupons and the like. It’s a tit-for-tat scenario, which to me is perfectly fine And applies to more than just loyalty card schemes.

Among others, this is why I have been blocking a number of webrobots on my ModSecurity Ruleset — those that try to get data without giving anything back, for me, are just bad companies. If you want to get something, give something bad back.

And finally, the comment twice uses the phrase, taken from the conspirationists’ rulebook, “This is only the beginning”. Sorry guys, you’ve been saying that this is the beginning for the past thirty years. I start to think you’re not smarter than me, just much more paranoid, too much.

To sum it up, I’m honestly of the opinion that all the people in countries that are in all effect free and democratic that complain about “invasion of privacy”, are only complaining because they want to keep hiding their bad sides, be it bad habits, false statements, or previous errors. Myself, as you can see from this blog, i tend to be fairly open. There is very little I would be embarrassed by, probably only the fact that I do have a profile on a dating site, but even in that, well, I’ve been as honest as a person can be. Did I do something stupid in my past? I think quite a few things. On the other hand, I don’t really care.

So, there you go, this is my personal opinion about all the paranoids who think that they have to live off the grid to be free. Unless you’re in a country that is far from democratic, I’d just say you’re a bunch of crybabies. As I said, places where your Government can’t be trusted, have much bigger problems than loyalty schemes or profiling.

Comments 8
  1. Information is power and power will be abused. It may not happen today, it may take another 30 years, but it will happen eventually. Those who have an information advantage will use it to help their interests. If they don’t do it, they will lose out to those who have less scruples.And the interestes of those who have an information advantage are not always the same as yours. Just think of all the merchants in Venetia that charge tourists more than native Venetians. They are only able to do this because they have learned to distinguish the two groups and they are using this information to their advantage. The same will happen with your loans. You will *not* pay a fair, risk-adjusted rate. You will pay the maximum rate the bank has learned you are likely to accept. Prego – enjoy your 7 Euro Cappuccino.

  2. This is OT, but a place that sells a 7 euro cappuccino will most likely do so for both natives and tourists.Of course, many are scammers, but then Venetian people will simply not go there.But others do it because the waiter’s suits cost 1000 euros each, because the walls have beautiful frescos, because Casanova or Dickens used to go there. This place =>…è_Florian will charge you 9 yours for a cappuccino and nobody would call it a scam.

  3. +1 to what Paolo said. Although I would find Caffè Florian a scam simply because it’s a very bad coffee, but that’s a digression.And yes, there are a few places where a tourist would be scammed, but not a local. But do they need loyalty cards for that? No, it’s just that knowledge is power *without you doing anything* at that point, they hear the accent. In my case, they could very easily take me for a tourist and try to scam me … but then I would be calling the Yellow Flames, as well.

  4. Tweak the scenario a little: you buy a lot of sweets and drink soft-drinks. The grocery store—or more likely the chain who operates it—sells that to a third-party data broker that in turn sells it to an insurance company. Would that affect your abilities to get a life insurance? It could potentially put you in the risk of getting type two diabetes. Which would make you a costly costumerThe insurance company may decline your application for a life insurance. But they would not necessarily—depending on local law—have to explain that they did it because you consume a bottle of Pepsi every day.My problem is with not knowing what the data is [potentially] used for, who uses it, and why they are collecting it in the first place.No one who is signing up for these loyalty cards agree to have their personal information collected. They sign up to get a card that gives them a cash-back. That the checkbox at the bottom of the form comes with a whole bag of other commitments don’t even cross their minds.

  5. Daniel I’m afraid you’ve not done your homework on me. I *have* type 2 diabetes. And it’s most likely that, being genetically predisposed to it, it might have been caused by drinking too many soft-drinks.But I got life insurance anyway, even if the condition is pre-existing.You’re trying to defend a paranoid position by stating that there is no way to fix broken systems (like the US’s health care system), and that is in my opinion just an easy cop-out of the problem.And if you want to tweak the situation a little more on the positive side, rather than on the negative side *like everybody who complain about loyalty cards do*, health care systems, or providers, could cross-check your purchase and warn you (just wan you!) if you’re at risk for whatever health issue due to your patterns. Preventive health care!

  6. What you state is a strong version of the “I’ve got nothing to hide” argument. If you’re interested in a thorough debunking, there is a very good article in the chronicle about that:…In short: It’s about an imbalance in knowledge. The danger is less 1984 (that only applies to the weak nothing to hide argument which assumes evildoing from others), but rather Kafkaesque: Other people take decisions about you without telling you how they reach those decisions. Since you do not know their sources (and often do not even know that they took a decision), you cannot correct misinformation about you. And the more those decisions from others affect you, the more you lose control about your life.The good usecase for information would be that you explicitely request to get advertisements for certain types of wares. Or for wares which are similar to a list of wares you explicitely select. Then you know the data from which the others take decisions about you, and you can change it.(also posted in my own blog, since I think that the argument is important:… )

  7. Tu lo chiami invasione della privacy, io lo chiamo protezione dei valori fondamentali. La prospettiva varia a seconda del contesto e delle priorità, ma è essenziale bilanciare la sicurezza con il rispetto per la privacy individuale.

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