Data-mining (your name here)

Posted 03.27.11

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | One advance in our high-tech world is to allow people in every check-out line to pull out their debit card for a pack of smokes, a scratch card, groceries, or merely for a liter of beer, and, of course, have to make two or three tries to get the card to work -- while the rest of the line-up glares.

Few will insult e-gadgetry's progress by suggesting a person might have saved himself and the rest of us a lot of time by picking up cash before shopping. Somehow it has become a human right to make everyone wait while a citizen fishes around for the right card and then re-enters her code several times.

A recent study by Target stores in the US points to something quite different: there's much more at stake than our constitutional right to use a charge card for the tiniest purchase. Target, as do most large retailers, data-mines all recorded purchases.

Purchases by cash are not recordable: You pay, get a receipt, but the store, credit card company and bank have no record of your identity or your purchase. Put that bottle of shampoo on your debit card, and you create "information", which can be "mined".

Mining means the bank can draw up an incredibly complete list of your purchases, where you made them, what time of day you shop, etc, etc. If the store isn't using this information for its own purposes, they can sell it. And they do sell it, says the Target study, released by the New York Times last month. Idiot-photos on Facebook are small change.

Large chains and banks have so many credit cards in use, the statistical information within all these purchases can be very valuable -- to any company which wants to sell you more, based on your past interests. This is not only groceries. It includes travel information, and, if you throw in the data now being scanned, stored, sorted and collected by internet providers, movie downloads, educational, gaming, and "entertainment" preferences -- especially by cell phone companies -- there is huge part our private lives now public. Our personal e-mail letters are scanned for key words. This data becomes a product in itself, worth big money.

There are suggestions that phone companies are tracking not only our calls -- to whom and what are our topics of personal communication -- but also tracking our movements. Phones have GPS tracking; that data is also saved and sold. None of us need consider writing an autobiography; it's being done as we shop, talk, and travel! The reason why e-mail and other services are free is that e-mail is not the product being sold: our data, we, the card-users, we're the product.

Using a card for every thing we do may indeed be a human right (if you insist). But it isn't a smart thing to do, if another of your human rights is personal privacy. Cash leaves no footprints.

Copyright © 2012 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.12