L. Neil Smith's
Number 99, November 20, 2000
Who Wants to be a President?

Private Sector Privacy

by Carl Bussjaeger

Exclusive to TLE

While we're rightly worried about governmental privacy issues, sometimes we can forget that private or corporate intrusions are possible as well. No, not just the usual corporate Internet usage monitoring. Heck, to a great extent, a private company should be able to tell its employees that they can't waste company resources with recreational browsing or nonbusiness related mail. No, what I'm talking about now is the unnecessary collection of personal data from customers.

Let me give you a couple of examples, both more than a little creepy.

As some readers may recall, I had need of some truck parts recently. To obtain these parts, I went to a store which shall remain nameless, but whose initials are Advance Auto Parts. While ringing up my purchase, the clerk asked what's becoming an ever more popular question: What's my phone number?

In theory, Advance wants my number so that they can keep track of my warranty data. Uh huh. Right. Whatever you say. Of course they'd never match that up with the name and address which they also want, to hammer me with unwanted mailings and phone calls. That would never enter their tiny little minds. Nor would selling that database to some other company, so that they can annoy me, too. Of course not. Uh huh. Right.

Well, as if that weren't bad enough ... I value my privacy. But sometimes it just isn't worth arguing about. So I made up a phone number and gave the guy that. Simple enough.

Sonuvagun ... Seems that number was already in their computer. The clerk, verifying that he had the right entry, asked, "That's Mr. Joe Blow, at <insert poor Mr. Blow's physical address>?"

I smiled and agreed. Whatever he said.

Cool. I walked into a store, gave a bogus phone number, and received some stranger's name and address. If I'd been so inclined, I probably could have obtained a listing of his recent purchases. All because I 'knew' his phone number. Something to think about. His phone number, for cryin' out loud; not even his SIAN.

Still more thought provoking was a trip to Radio Shack. You know the company - the folks who've been getting progressively more Big Brother every day for the last fifteen years or so.

I do the odd bit of telecomm and computer work. This time, I was going to do some pretty basic stuff: Install a couple of phone jacks. But I was short of cable and went shopping. As I headed down the road, I spotted a Radio Shack. Despite my better judgment, I parked and walked in.

Big mistake.

Sure, they had the cable. But as anyone who's been to Radio Shack in recent years can tell you, they don't exactly have the lowest prices in town. So shoot me; I had a brain fart. Nonetheless, I needed the cable, so I headed to the checkout.

Yep, you got it. They wanted my phone number. And name. And address. But this time, I hit a threshold. Instead of simply giving them bogus data like I normally do, I told them, "No, you don't need that information."

Wrong answer. "Yes, we do."


"So we can verify your credit card."

"No other on-premises retail facility needs that data; why do you? Especially, why do you for a cash sale?"

"The company requires it."

"Not from me."

Folks, I argued with that moron for five minutes, then demanded to see the manager. He was slightly more upfront about the issue. "We need the information so we can send you sales flyers."

I explained that not only did I not want their sales flyers, but that I'd probably never see them, since I'm on the road so much. No good.

Radio Shack refused, I kid you not, refused to sell me anything unless I gave them my name, address, and phone number. So I walked out, and they missed a sale.

I then proceeded to the hardware store where I should have been to begin with, and purchased the needed supplies. At a lower cost. Without having to register with Corporate Big Brother.

Does this make any sense whatsoever from a rational business angle: To refuse to sell your over-priced product to someone who doesn't want to show his papers to the company chekist? Radio Shack is over-priced. I know that's been losing them business; can they afford to lose more in a meaningless quest for personal data? How the bloody hell do they expect to compete with other companies who offer the same products at better prices without intruding on the customer's privacy?

I can't see that it does make any sense. If I were as paranoid as some acquaintances accuse me, I might be wondering about their agenda. Hell, I do wonder. I can't help it.

And have you tried cashing a check anywhere but your bank lately? There's a good chance that the place wanted fingerprints. What's next? Retinal scans and DNA sampling. Electronic tagging?

In theory, much of this identification frenzy is meant to protect the company from fraud. But once a database exists, who else will get ... No, will demand access to it? Got a cell phone? Hope you don't mind the feddies having access to your data (not to mention your location) at all hours.

But don't worry. Wasn't it that chekist Guliani who said, "The innocents have nothing to fear ... only if you are guilty should you worry..."?

Or maybe it'll just be me getting hold of your data. Because I knew your phone number.

Or maybe someone with fewer principles will know your phone number. ...

But I won't be cooperating with the snooping. I won't be shopping at Advance or Radio Shack again. Call it a personal boycott: I will no longer do business with a company that demands personal data for no good reason. Not Advance, damned well not Radio Shack, and not any other overly curious corporate collective.

It's a simple rule: Ask for unnecessary data that is specific to me, and lose my business. For good. Necessity does not include building a junk mailing list, especially one which may be for sale to the highest bidder(s).

Hmm... Maybe I should seend poor Mr. Blow a letter explaining that I know, and how, who he's been doing business with, and asking if he plans to continue that association?

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