By Nathan Barton
A friend recently complained about how the ads he sees on-line are more and more targeted to him, personally. He clicked on a link on one website that led him to an Amazon page (where he could have, but declined, to buy the book). Then, a few days later, he visited Amazon to look up and buy something else, and lo and behold, there was an icon showing that book from the other site.
As I told him, frankly, having books I looked up on Amazon appear the next time I go to Amazon doesn’t bother me. They know what I was looking at. That is just providing customer service and checking to see if I was still interested.
What bothers me is this: When I look up something on one site and then go to another site and find an ad for that item or some comparable item. Or start getting e-mails from third parties trying to sell me that item or something similar. That means that either the original website or Amazon sold the information about my inquiry to some other different company.
It is the equivalent of going to a Kroger’s store and buying bananas. Then, a few days later at a local, non-Kroger store, having the sales clerk look at her screen and ask, “did you forget to buy bananas?” Kroger has sold my purchasing history – my personal information – to someone else, who probably sold it to the local store.
It is an expansion of the customer-loyalty programs which are such a key part of marketing today, especially for convenience stores and supermarket chains. A few have opt-outs, but their terms of service can change at any time.
Why does this bother us? After all, in the “old days” when we always shopped at the same supermarket down the street a few blocks (or in the nearest town, fifty miles from the ranch), we got to know the clerk (who might even be one of the owners) and they knew and remembered us and what we bought and what we looked for on sale.
The difference, of course, is who. Who has that information, and who can get hold of it, and how that information can be used against us. Especially by our enemies, which usually includes government.
So what do we do? Do we cut ourselves off from buying (or even looking for) anything on-line? Do we eschew discounts and sales on products we need and buy? For most of us, that is a tough question. When I look at the sales receipt from a grocery run and see “you saved 37% by being a preferred customer,” that is hard to give up. Ditto when on the road for business (or family) and I am able to get $25 off a motel room.
And if we DO give up those benefits, what do we gain besides a bigger bill? If we pay with credit card or with a check, we still give the companies and the financial institutions information about ourselves and our finances. We still lose our privacy.
(It may be a digression, but I am old enough to recall when local stores, at least in the small frontier/rural towns my family lived in, “ran tabs.” The store owner would keep a tab of what you and your family members bought during the month. This was usually by hand in a steno notebook with your name and phone number, where the amount of purchases (including the 1-2% sales tax) was recorded and totaled up at the end of the month, when you got paid. (And in small towns, everyone knew when the various businesses, school, etc. paid their people!) You’d get paid. If you were paid by check, you deposited it at the bank and withdrew enough cash, then walked around town and paid everyone. If your income was seasonal (like teachers or farmhands or construction folks) you “paid ahead” a bit to help the merchant’s cash flow during the months when you didn’t get a paycheck (or not as much of one). No more, no more!)
Paying cash doesn’t always work, either. I stayed in a motel in a major urban area recently, using cash. But I had to provide an ID WITH Address (local law – they wouldn’t accept an ID that didn’t have a street address) AND had to provide a credit card (company policy, they said) which they put a hold on, just in case I snuck an animal in or smoked or trashed the room. Or stole all the towels.
So what do we do? Even if we go Galt, we still have to buy things, go places, and interact with people – and with companies. And however much we hate it, with government agencies.
Even hobos (or their modern equivalent) can’t get by with leaving no electronic footprints, or so I understand. The homeless (even those who have no autos to live in) are tracked by local law enforcement and welfare agencies even through soup kitchens and shelters. And increasingly, this is done by biometrics: your photo becomes an ID card to identify you across the Fifty States. (And don’t even think about food banks – most of which require an incredible amount of ID and documentation to demonstrate that you are “deserving.”)
The slowly growing (but still growing) war on cash (a worldwide effort) is going to make it worse: not just everyone having to have the state-issued ID card (drivers license, usually) and the EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card. Fingerprint tracking and reading is now accurate enough to use for opening your phone. Facial photos, no matter how much makeup or how much beard you have, are used with webcams to replace passwords on computers. To say nothing of implanted RFID chips – common now on pets and livestock, and being welcomed by some people for themselves and their children.
I don’t have an answer yet. Do you?
Mama’s Note: There is no doubt that facial recognition and other biometric measures are a worry to those who respect privacy, but they are no where near being 100% effective, at least not yet. “Science” has an excellent article on this topic, refuting previous claims of 100%.
As with so much else in our troubled society today, the problem rests in great part on what ordinary people are willing to accept, for whatever real or imagined advantage it gives them. Far too few are in any way concerned with their own privacy, let alone that of anyone else. People who record and upload their bowel habits, suicides and kinky sex to social media are not going to be concerned with facial recognition at the airport.
There won’t be a freedom oriented answer for this as long as people assume that government has a legitimate authority to track, record and control them in any way. They won’t question commercial use of the tracking and recording until then either. Even among the freedom oriented people I know, very few are willing to bother with email encryption, a very simple thing to use, and very effective.
The blockchain technology being developed now has great promise, but it must be used consciously and carefully. There is no such thing as a free lunch in privacy, any more than there is in economics or politics.