Oh Noes! Stores Are In Your Coupons, Stealing Your Privacy!

BlogHer Original Post

Scissors cutting out coupon from flyer

Your privacy is up for grabs in the Digital Age -- we've all heard about the supposed dangers when we go online. And I'm not making light, really; today's technology does allow for tracking of individuals in ways that our parents and our parents' parents never had to consider. But the doom-flavored article that ran in the New York Times this weekend about what retailers know about you from web coupons sort of made me roll my eyes.

Here's the upshot of the article:

A new breed of coupon, printed from the Internet or sent to mobile phones, is packed with information about the customer who uses it. While the coupons look standard, their bar codes can be loaded with a startling amount of data, including identification about the customer, Internet address, Facebook page information and even the search terms the customer used to find the coupon in the first place.

And all that information follows that customer into the mall. For example, if a man walks into a Filene’s Basement to buy a suit for his wedding and shows a coupon he retrieved online, the company’s marketing agency can figure out whether he used the search terms “Hugo Boss suit” or “discount wedding clothes” to research his purchase (just don’t tell his fiancée).

And this has some privacy advocates up in arms, because companies know things about you:

While companies once had a slim dossier on each consumer, they now have databases packed with information. And every time a person goes shopping, visits a Web site or buys something, the database gets another entry.

“There is a feeling that anonymity in this space is kind of dead,” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology’s information privacy programs.

Let's back up the truck for just a minute, shall we?

Once upon a time you walked into a store and handed over paper money for an item, received a receipt, and went on your merry way. And the store never kept any record of your ever having been there. Well, they had a record of the item sold and for how much, but they didn't know anything about you. Anonymity! Hallelujah! So the secret of that ugly hat or how many bags of potato chips you bought was safe.

Should you require that sort of anonymity today, walk into any store -- fedora jammed tightly on your head, natch -- and pay with cash.

But if you pay with a check or a credit card, now the store has your name and address. And it's not very difficult to find out more details about you once you have that information. Shop online, and you pretty much have to conduct your transaction with a traceable form of payment. So yes, Virginia, they know who you are.

Furthermore, you no longer need a fleet of number-crunchers to assemble data about who shops for what and how; the computers used to run the stores can easily compile demographics, shopping habits, and whatever else the Powers That Be would like to know about. And that's exactly what they do, because they're in the business of knowing what people want and how to make the most money from it.

But back to the article: It talks about how a company named RevTrax handles many of these web coupons for retailers, collecting and encoding information like search terms or the user's Facebook info into the coupons themselves, which the retailers can then use to track demographics and spending habits. Apparently this information gathering in the web coupon sector is supposed to get your panties in a wad, because privacy is important and they're doing this on the sly and it's wrong and bad.

Here's what I think (just in case you couldn't tell): I think that in an age of digital everything it's foolhardy to assume this information isn't being collected at every possible juncture. Yes, your spending habits and how you found that coupon are being tracked. So what? If it matters to you, don't use coupons and don't shop online and pay cash for everything. Me, I'm a pretty dedicated online shopper and other than safeguarding my credit card numbers to protect myself from fraud, I really don't see the problem with, say, Kohls knowing how often I shop there and that I use coupons. Because then they send me more coupons. See?

Furthermore, I'll confess a little bit of nerdtastic admiration that companies are realizing this sort of data may be useful, and that they've figured out a simple, fairly invisible way to track it.

If it bothers you, though, here's a few tips to keep your information more anonymous:

1) Facebook. Either don't use coupons offered via Facebook (usually for becoming a fan of a store's page) or make yourself a dummy identity that's just for coupons. Alternatively, experiment with how much personal information Facebook will allow you to leave off of your profile. (Again, why do you care if Sears knows you're female? I don't. But okay.)

2) Payment methods. Paying in person, in cash, is the best way to safeguard your anonymity. Barring that, you may want to look into the possibility of virtual credit card numbers with your credit card company, or purchasing either generic Visa giftcards or store-targeted giftcards and paying with those. Seems like a lot of trouble to go to, to me, but if you're concerned, these are all viable options.

3) The Internet coupon info-snag. Coupons can only embed the information they're able to capture about you, so understand how that information is gathered and how to work around it if you so desire. Any time you do an online search and then click on a result link, your search terms are captured. The easiest workaround for that is to do your search, and then instead of clicking through on the results page, copy and paste the resultant URL in a new browser window. You can also use any of a variety of proxy servers to mask your origination IP, though be aware that most free services to do this may not work with various coupon printers (and so may not get you the page you need, rendered properly).

But maybe I'm being too cavalier. Does it bother you that companies are gathering your vital stats? Do you feel tricked and/or spied upon? Just please don't hit me with your fedora.

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir also blogs about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.


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