Con­sumers’ pri­vacy pil­fered via cus­tomer loy­alty pro­grams

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Christo­pher Adams

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-to­day 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-tore­move 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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