Shoppers no longer enjoy privacy

Shoppers no longer enjoy privacy

Shoppers no longer enjoy privacy

Web coupons embedded with bar codes that can identify, and alert retailers to, the search terms you used to find them and, in some cases, even your Facebook information and your name.

Mobile marketers that can find you near a store clothing rack, and send ads to your cellphone based on your past preferences and behavior.

To be sure, such retail innovations help companies identify their most profitable client segments, better predict the deals shoppers will pursue, fine-tune customer service down to a person and foster brand loyalty. But these and other surveillance techniques are also reminders that advances in data collection are far outpacing personal data protection.

The commission has brought several dozen complaints against companies about possibly deceptive or unfair data collection and nearly 30 complaints over data security issues. In 2009, the commission proposed new guidelines for Web advertising that is tailored to user behavior.

The problem is, the F T C’s guidelines are merely recommendations. Corporations can choose to follow them — or not. And the online advertising standards don’t apply to off-line techniques like observation in stores.

Mike Zaneis, vice president for public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association based in Manhattan, says the advertising industry is not generally collecting personally identifiable data.

 He says consumers can use an industry program if they want to opt out of some behavior-based ads. As for mobile marketing consumers are always asked if they want to opt in to ads related to their cellphone location.

The larger issue here is not the invasion of any one person’s privacy as much as the explosive growth of a collective industry in behavioral information, says Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group that works to safeguard user privacy.

As contradictory as it might sound, we need new strategies for transparent consumer surveillance. In a country where we have a comprehensive federal law — the Fair Credit Reporting Act — giving us the right to obtain and correct financial data collected about us, no general federal statute requires behavioral data marketers to show us our files, says Rich.

Europe’s privacy commissioners have generally been more forward-looking, examining potential privacy intrusions like biometric tracking, while the F T C is still trying to understand the magnitude and the implications of the Web, says Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research group in Washington.

 By early fall, the F T C plans to propose comprehensive new privacy guidelines intended to provide greater tools for transparency and better consumer control of personal information, Rich says.

In a recent documentary called “Erasing David,” the London-based filmmaker David Bond attempts to disappear from Britain’s surveillance grid, hiring experts from the security firm Cerberus to track him using all the information they can glean about him while he tries to outrun them. In the course of the film, the detectives even obtain a copy of the birth certificate of his daughter, then 18 months old.

But the real shocker is the information  Bond is able to obtain about himself — by taking advantage of a data protection law in Britain that requires public agencies and private businesses to release a person’s data file upon his or her written request.

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