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Privacy or Customer Service?

April 10th, 2008 · 5 Comments

Adam Thierer links a sound post on the way concerns about privacy in the digital context seem inconsistent with our reactions in the physical realm:

Let’s say you are a tall, dashing, smartly dressed Chief Research Officer at a major Internet audience measurement company, and you walk into Nordstrom’s. A sales clerk you recognize comes up to you and says, “Hey, your wife’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and we just got in those sweaters she likes. Should I put a couple of them away for you in her size and color?” Now let me ask you. Does this hypothetical Chief Research Officer perceive this to be: (a) an egregious violation of his privacy, causing him to immediately rush home and write his state assemblyman; or (b) another example of Nordstrom’s world-class customer service? If you answered (b), then you’re tracking with me so far.

So how come if this exact same thing happens on the other side of the screen, it stops being outstanding customer service and turns into a violation of privacy?

Just to tack on a frivolous personal anecdote, I recall my father relating to me a visit to a Nordstrom’s we’d visited a year or two previous. The same sales associate who’d helped us then immediately walked up to him and said, without prompting: “Oh, Dr Sanchez! How is Julian enjoying NYU? Did he end up sticking with journalism? I hope that Joseph Abboud worked out for him. You were more partial to the Hickey Freeman’s, as I recall, though. I think we have a few in you might like.” When he’d finished picking his jaw up off the floor, he purchased several of the very aptly-chosen suits she’d recommended. Declan McCullagh wrote about the upsides of “zero privacy” for Reason a few years back.

All that said, I think there is a clear distinction between the knowledge stored in that Nordstrom’s associate’s impressive memory bank had and the kind of information compiled in  online transactions. As Lawrence Lessig and others have stressed, privacy is not just a function of what others know about you, but of the searchability of that information. That’s why we don’t fret a great deal that hundreds of dispersed people may each observe some fragment of our public comings and goings, but may get a little edgy when a network of closed circuit surveillance cameras can perfectly record and archive the same behavior, perhaps eventually subject to search by face-recognition technology that can pluck our trail from a vast store of tape. You may not care that the Rite Aid clerk knows you bought a tube of Astroglide; you may be less sanguine about having that data correlated with your dinner reservations later the same evening.

Tags: Privacy and Surveillance


       

 

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LP // Apr 10, 2008 at 11:03 am

    “…privacy is not just a function of what others know about you, but of the searchability of that information. That’s why we don’t fret a great deal that hundreds of dispersed people may each observe some fragment of our public comings and goings, but may get a little edgy when a network of closed circuit surveillance cameras can perfectly record and archive the same behavior…”

    I guess you could call this the ‘small town’ effect — the problem with small town life (for those who value their privacy) isn’t that every individual action you take is observed (which it is), it’s that that tiny bit of information will be immediately correlated with every other tiny bit of information acquired about you by every other resident, in a way that can’t be accomplished in a city.

  • 2 Tybalt // Apr 10, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Not at all – I’m bloody tired of restaurants not having Astroglide on the menu. If more of them knew what a popular condiment it was, I wouldn’t have to bring my own all the time.

  • 3 Phaedrus // Apr 10, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    There’s another issue here as well:

    A company I willingly do business with using the information it learns from our transactions to serve me better: Great. I highly endorse it.

    A company I willingly do business with selling that information to anyone with a buck, allowing all sort of charlatans I’d prefer not even know I exist hit me up with their scam offers: An egregious violation of my privacy.

  • 4 Christopher Monnier // Apr 11, 2008 at 12:53 am

    The one time I went into Nordstrom I was in a hurry and looking for fleece mittens for my wife. I asked the salesperson where fleece mittens might be, to which she condescendingly responded, “Nordstrom doesn’t carry fleece.”

  • 5 Ade // Apr 13, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    I totally agree with you on every point. It’s not the privacy issue per se, but it’s the context in which the information will be used. Greatly written article. That’s why even though I have a blog, I tend to utilize the privacy features of my blog engine, http://i.ph . It really is useful because I can only show my thoughts only to a chosen few.

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