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Consumers' privacy pilfered via customer loyalty programs

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2014 (952 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Twenty years ago, who could predict that the subject of data analysis could be so sexy? Beginning in 2003, Michael Lewis's Moneyball focused on how algorithms are used to win baseball championships. The book became a surprising bestseller and then a blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt.

Another example is Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab, which is about how elections are won by using data. It is now a "must read" for political junkies.

Adam Tanner, a Harvard University scholar and business writer, joins this growing trend with What Stays in Vegas by giving us an inside look on how personal data from credit ratings, voter lists, marriage licenses, police records and online behaviours are combined and sold on the open market.

In this very readable account about our disappearing privacy, Tanner begins by describing a trip in 1988 to Soviet-dominated East Germany to do travel guide research. While there he was under surveillance by the secret police, the Stasi -- he was followed, photographed, and those he met were interrogated.

Later, after the Berlin Wall came down and police files were opened to the public, Tanner was able to examine the information the Stasi gathered on him.

Tanner then moves the reader quickly forward to the current era, in which surveillance is far less clumsy, and easily done by those who collect data from the digital footprints we leave behind in our day-to-day activities.

Central to his discussion is Caesars Entertainment, which operates successful casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere and has pioneered the use of its loyalty card program to keep track of customers' behaviour. They know the games each person plays, how much is spent, and connect these records to information gathered when the customer joined the loyalty program.

There's a tradeoff going on here -- consumers join loyalty programs with casinos, airlines, grocers and gasoline retailers to gain rewards in exchange for sharing their personal details. In the case of Caesars, thousands of dollars in gambling chips and free hotel rooms are given to those they know gamble heavily.

Of concern is that what might have started out as a fair and voluntary exchange of personal information for rewards, such as free trips for those who fly often, is now largely out of our control. For example, by examining slightly varying proportions among Facebook users of those having "friends" who say they are gay, mathematical calculations can be done to uncover the sexual orientation of those who do not wish to disclose their orientation. Another example is the posting online of difficult-to-remove mug shots of individuals who have been arrested but not found guilty.

Data on how we shop and what we buy are surreptitiously gathered, and then used by marketing firms and list dealers who are unknown to us. In the U.S., Tanner gives the example of Catalina Marketing, which boasts that it collects the "purchase histories of more than 75 per cent of U.S. shoppers and 128 million health consumers" that can be used for targeted marketing.

An individual is easily ensnared by filling out a simple form for a contest that asks for a name, date of birth, phone number and email address. A company takes what appears to be basic information and then connects it to commercially available databases which include health-related records, police records, credit scores, voting behaviour and so on. This can affect the chance of getting a promotion at work, a new job, insurance, an apartment lease...

In the final section, the author lists many effective practices and online tools for those seeking to take back at least a small amount of control over their private lives.

What Stays in Vegas is both readable and entertaining, and in a similar manner as Michael Lewis's writings, Tanner provides interesting stories about the people and companies that are now so directly involved in our personal lives.


Christopher Adams is currently working on a history of the Canadian marketing research industry and is the Rector of St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba.


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Updated on Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 8:55 AM CDT: Formatting.

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