Over the years I have written about the increasing penchant of both government and private corporations to gather and analyze data about individuals, often without individuals realizing the extent to which this occurs. Most folks don’t realize that their computers are littered with so-called “cookies” placed on them by websites they have visited. These cookies provide the websites with detailed information about the online activities of the computer owners. Similarly, online search engines like Google are constantly gathering information about us every time we use their search functions, information that enables Google to compile detailed portraits of our online buying and viewing habits.
But, for the most part, people, including myself, have felt relatively safe shopping at real, physical store locations under the apparently mistaken assumption that such stores do not gather information the way online sites do. Now, the New York Times has let the cat out of the bag so far as retail information-gathering goes. In a recent article by Charles Duhigg, the Times has uncovered the fact that many stores, including national chains, do extensive information-gathering about customers and compile customer profiles about every customer and every purchase. This Times article has created a minor avalanche of online blog discussions, all of which point out how very unsafe even in-store shopping can be for those of us who want to maintain our privacy.
The Times article describes one of the most “effective” information gathering and analysis programs operated by a national chain: Target. When I read this I was truly astounded. According to the Times article Target has perfected the process by which it gathers information about its patrons.
“Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. ‘If you use a credit card or a coupon, or ﬁll out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an email we’ve sent you or visit our website, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,’ Pole said. ‘We want to know everything we can.’”
Perhaps, I’m just naïve, but, I don’t want Target or anybody else operating on the assumption that it’s all right with me that they “want to know everything about me.” When I shop at a store, including Target, I’m paying for the goods they sell. I’m the customer. They’re not doing me a favor. I’m doing them a favor by patronizing them. I don’t need them to hire people specializing in “predictive analytics,” the term used to describe this invasive information-gathering and analysis technique. In fact, the last thing I want Target or any other store doing is keeping files on me.
As I said, I suppose I’ve been stupidly naïve by assuming that if I buy things in stores rather than online I have a better chance of preserving my privacy. From now on, I’m simply not going to shop at stores that maintain such data files and I’m going to ask whether stores do so before I patronize them. Maybe this is just one more good reason to avoid national stores and to shop locally. I suppose I am assuming that locally owned stores don’t do what Target does. I hope that they don’t. But I will certainly ask from now on. Any stores that have been doing this sort of thing can add that to my file — as the last entry — since I won’t be shopping there anymore.