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Today’s special: Your privacy

Submitted by on Wednesday, 7 January 2009 No Comment
I used to giggle when I bought a box of Huggies and the cash register would spit out a Pampers coupon. Or when I purchased Beechnut and the machine countered with a Gerber discount.

It was even funnier when the baby-food coupons kept sliding out for years after the guys were eating human food.

Then it started to bug me. What the heck is that computer basing its decision on?

I'm fairly diligent about privacy and am aware that signing up for anyone's loyalty card gives the retailer cart blanche to track you from aisle to aisle forever. I have only one card, because that store has some pretty hefty "members only" sales: Brand-name yogurt 10 for $5 and a 24 pack of toilet paper for $10.49 this week, for example.

I quit using it, though, when I figured out my total bill at that store always was higher despite the 20 cents or so saved on a cup of yogurt.

That card, though, wasn't for the Pampers place. But I did participate at a program at that store through which the grocer would contribute a percentage of my purchases to a friend's kids school. It never occurred to me that I also was donating personal data. Data that lives to this day, long after my kids are out of diapers.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not enough of a Luddite to regard all data mining as evil. Some of it is fair retail game. If software can let a store figure out which brand of soda sells best on what days and in what month and then adjust inventory accordingly, that's great. That's simply letting a machine calculate quickly what a human could do after laborious compilation and analysis.

But when retailers start using it to mail shoppers coupons for items they purchase regularly, that kicks it up a notch for me.

That's a pretty hefty database. That's pairing name, address and shopping history in ways that can be retrieved. That has the potential to be invasive.

Naturally, the company behind the database says there's no ill intent. "We understand that this is long-term, and if we do anything to exploit that relationship, then we destroy the value for our clients," Simon Hay, an official with the data-mining company the grocer Kroger Co. owns, told The Associated Press.

But if Kroger can retrieve the information quickly enough to send out timely fliers, how long is it going to be before a lawyer or government agency seeks a subpoena? Or takes the information without bothering with a subpoena. Not that that's happened in recent years ...

Of course, the retailer isn't taking anything the customer isn't willing to give up in order to get the discount.

That's why next time I'll write a check to the school. I'd rather donate cash than donate a database of my purchases that will live on for years.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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