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Big Brother and not-so-big brother

The lead article in this past Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" struggles mightily to act puzzled over indications that Americans care more about protecting their privacy from commercial interests — which have no real power over their lives — than they do about protecting it from the government — which of course controls a rather large criminal justice system.

It doesn't seem like much of a puzzle to me, though. Give us your personal data, these large corporations say, so that we may sell sell sell you all these things so our top executives can make even more money money money! Naturally, people resist. It's a marketing failure more than anything, I think, by the way. Take, for example, those "club" cards you can get at most major supermarket chains these days. If enough people used them consistently enough, they would enable supermarkets to better predict what they need on their shelves, and what they don't, at the same time lowering their costs (and possibly prices) while better ensuring you can get what you need even on the most unanticipated of 2 a.m. grocery runs. But the value is never explained; people are left to conclude the supermarket wants their personal info for some nefarious purpose — why else would they try to bribe us with those sale prices?

The government, on the other hand, uses one of the oldest marketing tricks in the book — the scare tactic — to brilliant effect. Do you want us to be able to keep watch over The Terrorists? they ask. Obviously! we reply. Nevermind that it's hardly clear that the overall cost to our country of even a successful terrorist attack is greater than the increased "security" measures that would be required to prevent it. That is, given that various government agencies already have a certain amount of power — power that has only failed exceptionally in its job of protecting us — is augmenting that power going to prevent more damage than it will cause?

Nobody seems to know how Americans feel about that, and with good reason — no one's asking. You gotta give the Bush administration this, at least: They understand how Americans think better than the New York Times does.

November 25, 2002 10:33 AM


You write:
If enough people used them consistently enough, they would enable supermarkets to better predict what they need on their shelves
It seems to me that they already have that information simply by tracking their inventory. I don't see how my buying habits except as part of group help them to better predict what they need on their shelves. The personal information I provide can be used for targeting advertising directly to me. Selling my information to others and in general exactly what I want to avoid, one more piece of junk mail and one more call from a telemarketer.

Posted by Norm Jenson on November 25, 2002 1:32 PM

As Norm writes, there is no positive purpose for the supermarket tracking programs. The only incentive they provide is in the form of special prices that are really just regular prices that they only give to participants. I just give them fake addresses and phone numbers.

As for the government, there is an additional difference: at least as of yet, there is no sign-up process, and no card to present. The government is tracking us by changing laws and dealing with corporations and government agencies that already have information about us. There's no direct interaction and so far fewer individuals even know about the changes, much less have to deal with them, than those who have to deal with supermarket tracking programs.

Posted by Dave A on November 25, 2002 2:14 PM

The paranoia over supermarket club cards amuses me, mostly because it seems so misplaced. Not once has a telemarketer offered me any kind of grocery product or seemed to have gleaned any information about me based on my purchase of brand-name shampoo or store-brand cheese. What I do get are endless solicitations from the phone company I already use and calls from people who have only incorrect info about me, such as that I might want aluminum siding (for my apartment?) or that I qualify for a time-share condo in Vail (I'm too young and too poor). Maybe this should be our most immediate fear of gov't information gathering: that they will do their usual Keystone Kops job of it and end up targeting innocent people based on bad data.

Posted by Cynthia C on November 25, 2002 4:31 PM

The personal information I provide can be used for targeting advertising directly to me.

You say that like it's a bad thing. The reason targeted advertising is so loathed is because advertisers don't have enough information, not because they have too much. Think about it -- the most hated advertising is advertising that you have no use for. If ever you happen across a coupon or flier or offer for something you could actually use, aren't you usually glad?

I agree that unsolicited advertising is often odious. But, as Cynthia notes, supermarkets don't seem to practice much unsolicited advertising.

there is no positive purpose for the supermarket tracking programs

I agree that tying personal data to customers doesn't seem necessary -- all they really need is a unique identifier for each one, I think (unless they could get such information as annual household income and whether they drive their own car or walk to the market). But inventory is a huge expense, and supermarkets are a notoriously low-margin business. Tracking shoppers' shopping patterns over time could be hugely beneficial, especially to operations the size of those large supermarket chains.

The government is tracking us by changing laws and dealing with corporations and government agencies that already have information about us.

I'm not particularly concerned about anything the government's doing -- yet. But it's still far more threatening than anything any private interest is doing, at least that I know of, because the government actually has the ability to imprison people. "Changing laws" covers a rather large realm of possibilities, not all of them soft and cuddly.

Posted by M on November 26, 2002 10:59 AM

Shopper cards are under utilized by the retail industry. They can serve a number of good purposes, though, like inventory.

It actually does help establish appropriate inventory levels; True, as product gets scanned the on-the-shelf counts get adjusted ("Whoa, we're gettin a rush on Chocolate PopTarts, better order more in time for Sunday, our biggest shopping day."), but these cards they also help anticipate purchases.

Indeed, they know that Human 6373.2 purchses PopTarts (strawberry, unfrosted, please). But, if they're smart with their data, they'll also be able to anticipate, with a fair amount of accurracy, *how many and how often* Human 6373.2 purchases PopTarts, and from which store. And, if they're even smarter, they'll be able to graph consumption across time, learning that you buy more PopTarts during the cold winter months and that you torture you offspring with dry blocks of WheataBix during the summer months. That's how it helps they're inventory -- anticipatory purchases, and adjusting inventory to compensate for these fluxes of demand over time.

As time progresses, and the data collects in their large digital storage vats, a store's inventory will become increasingly accurate. It just takes huge amounts of info to see patterns and adjust appropriately.

Now, this says nothing about E-Z Passes or your cellphone or your TiVo (not Replay). That's a whole other (very potentially evil) story.

Posted by Human 6373.2 on November 26, 2002 12:23 PM

I think that we should support the Big Brother Act. What is the big deal? If you aren't doing anything wrong, then what does it matter if big brother looks iin on you?

Posted by Laura Williams on November 20, 2003 3:12 PM

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