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Is big brother watching your credit card use?

by Peter Andrew
Is big brother watching your credit card use?

When governments encroach on personal privacy, a major row almost always ensues. On one side, people get worked up about somewhat abstract civil rights violations. On the other, some debaters invariably suggest: “It’s only a problem if you’ve something to hide.”

Neither is wholly persuasive. The second quickly falls apart when subject to reductio ad absurdum analysis: without some rights to privacy, we’d have clear-glazed doors on motel rooms and public bathroom stalls, something that would cause acute problems for a number of public figures. And how many here would support the current practice in Finland and Norway of treating personal tax filings as public records, freely available to all?

Credit cards and your privacy

It’s one thing when the government is compiling personal data on Americans, but how do we feel when private corporations are doing the same thing? The answer is probably similar for both: conflicted.

Geolocation technology would allow your credit card companies, with your permission, to use your smartphone to know precisely where you are, every second of every day. In an example from The New York Times, this might benefit consumers: A shopper in the TV section of a Best Buy store receives a text message from her card issuer offering a significant discount on a particular television, immediately redeemable at the checkout.

As we observed last year, depending on your outlook, you’re as likely to be delighted by the money you might save as a result of such promotions, as you are to be horrified at a loss of personal privacy that can track you in real time to the nearest yard or so.

New ways your credit card habits can be tracked

Today, you mostly have to give your consent in order for a company to intrude into your life in anything like such a way. If you’re up for it, you can now sign up with Bync, a new (2011) company that allows you to synchronize your credit cards with its website. It then tracks your spending, builds a profile of your shopping habits, and sends you alerts when your favorite stores have promotions that might appeal to you.

Meanwhile, Swipely — another technology company, and one that this year will reach the grand old age of four — may also be tracking your spending, this time seemingly without your explicit permission. Swipely provides a service to small retailers that lack the resources to offer their own loyalty or private-label cards. Based on your swipes, it builds a profile of you that helps mostly local stores to understand who you are, and then actively manage their relationships with you — perhaps sending you special deals that might tempt you back to their outlets. In a recent press release, the company claimed it has tracked $250 million in sales across 500,000 customers.

Credit card transactions are not for sharing

Both Bync and Swipely at least provide tangible benefits to consumers — unlike Blippy, which was launched late in 2009 only to fold ignominiously in mid-2011. Blippy tried to be a social networking site for credit card use: you could share your credit card purchases with your friends — and, possibly, the public at large. When this writer covered the launch of Blippy, he scoffed:

Want your Mom to know how much you squandered in a “gentlemen’s” club last night? Want your husband to know you just booked a motel room? Want your wife to know you’re charging $500 in Victoria’s Secret? Want your friends to know what your booze bill is?

But when he reported the company’s demise, he was more serious, quoting data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling about how frequently college staff access Facebook and other websites before offering course places. You might think that prospective employers are even more likely to carry out such online checks.

Keeping you personal life personal

We live in an age when people publicly share information about themselves that previous generations would have regarded as intensely private. You could argue that’s created a healthier, less judgmental society. But it also comes with risks, such as your being excluded from a college or job because you shared too much.

But suppose others took an interest. We already see in almost every cop show the police accessing records from credit card companies to track down missing persons or to understand better a deceased’s life. Imagine if, for example, your health or life or auto insurer offered you a discount if you gave permission for them to access your purchases using your cards. Presumably, they’d track your booze and cigarette usage, but wouldn’t they also watch how many Oreos and Big Macs you eat in order to assess your health risks? How would you feel if, after a few years of discounts, those insurers demanded either the right to your spending records or a much higher premium in lieu?

By now, roughly half of you, dear readers, are asking what’s wrong with that. I don’t smoke, I drink only moderately and I eat healthily. Why shouldn’t I pay less for my insurance, and stop subsidizing the irresponsible? The other half are appalled at the Orwellian prospect of Big Brother (in the form of big corporations rather than big government) intruding so far into their lives.

Who’s right? That’s for you to decide. But let’s hold off on clear-glazed doors on motel rooms and public bathroom stalls, at least until we’re all dead.

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