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Confessions of a closet Airmiles collector

posted by:Hilary Young // 12:54 PM // August 08, 2005 // Commentary &/or random thoughts

So I'm having dinner at Stoneface Dolly's with some friends on Saturday, enjoying the patio and cold beer, when the conversation turns to which credit cards offer the best features, and eventually to loyalty programs such as the Airmiles card. (I know, we're an exciting bunch.) Someone mentions that because of such programs, companies have extensive profiles, not only of what you buy, but of demographic information and that there's a potential for some companies to have location information through GPS and cell phones. Someone else mentions Gmail and how it scans your e-mails in order to target advertising to you. All this is said without anyone expressing much concern – just interest in what is happening these days.

Then one friend says that, personally, he'd rather be subjected to ads related to his interests than to ones for products for which he has no use. He knows it's a machine searching his e-mail and doesn't feel that his privacy has been violated, and he sees the utility of targeted advertising.

In general, the group is aware that loyalty programs are ways for companies to buy information about you (what groceries you buy, how much you spend on your credit card in an average month) and they have no problem with that. And most of the time, I must confess, I feel the same way. In the past four years I've received almost $600 in free groceries by using my Master Card. In May, I went to Asia (Bangkok and Beijing) for free by cashing in Aeroplan points. I am quite willing to sell my personal information to companies if the price is right, and the price doesn't have to be that high – for my groceries it's slightly more than 1% of my Master Card purchases.

So, munching on focaccia with chèvre and eggplant, I feel that I should toe the privacy line and enlighten my friends with some of the reasons why all this data collection isn't such a great idea. In particular, the facilitation of identity theft and using information collected for other purposes to determine insurance rates made my friends think twice. But of course I'm being a total hypocrite. Here's my confession: I don't care that much about informational privacy. I think it's important that those who DO care have the means to preserve their privacy, but I'm not one of those people. There, I said it.

Now before you revoke my membership in the On the Identity Trail project, let me defend myself. I think one of the most important things this project is doing is imagining the implications of various future legal, policy and technological changes so that we as a society can make informed decisions about what we want to happen. If, knowing the consequences, people want to live in a Minority Report-type world where ads are targeted to specific individuals, that's fine by me. The problem is that we risk ending up in such situations, not because we've chosen them, but because we have made a number of incremental decisions that led to an undesirable result only because we didn't have the foresight to avoid it. Now that would be a shame, and I think this project's greatest contribution will be to provide some of that foresight.

At our table, as the sun begins to set, the conversation moves to lighter topics, such as how many empties we collectively have in preparation for bottling our next batch of homebrew (almost enough – I'll just have to empty a few more). Ironically, when we leave I pay cash, so that the only record of my having been at Stoneface Dolly's is… this blog entry.

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Hi Hilary. I think your defense is entirely convincing. I, for one, would certainly be disheartened if anyone suggested that your value as a member of the project is somehow diminished in the light of your "confession"!

Your post got me thinking about three things:

1. 'Personal information' covers an enormous range of information about individuals, dispersed along a very wide degree-of-sensitivity scale: the mere fact that something is a bit of personal information about an individual doesn't imply that it sits high on that scale for the individual. Some bits of personal information are highly sensitive, others not at all (or minimally so), and a lot falls in between. Correspondingly, some types of privacy may be very valuable to the individual, others of little or no value, and others yet somewhere in between.

2. It's worth keeping in mind that a right to something doesn't imply that the right-bearer places any particular value in the thing to which the right entitles her. To borrow an example that Steven Davis once raised, I might have the right to swim in a public pool, but -- quite consistently with this -- I might also not give a darn about what that right entitles me to. I might, after all, simply loathe the whole business of swimming, or I might value other competing things (e.g. privacy about my physical appearance) more highly. Something similar can be said about the right to privacy, I think.

3. Accordingly, we should be careful not to approach the right to (and value of) privacy in such a way that we in effect turn it into a duty. Just because someone doesn't care to exercise their right to privacy on a given matter (or, alternatively, waives that right) doesn't mean that they fail to recognize its existence. Nor does it mean that they will be any less concerned with seeing that others' possession of the right is respected.

I'd be curious to know what others think on these matters.

Posted by: David Matheson at August 8, 2005 04:49 PM

Hilary (and David),

I've been on a bit of a self-described "privacy jag" over at my blog recursiveProgress for the past week or so. It was triggered by the fed's Privacy Commissioner weighing in on secondary marketing in a bank's statement envelopes. For what it's worth, my position is not dissimilar to your own, although a little more esoteric and a lot less eloquent.

The distinction between "right" and "value" is critical, as you point out. What can't be overlooked in that paradigm, however, is that while we might recognize that it is the "value" which will drive most people's activity viz. privacy -- as it does yours and mine -- it is the "right" part which will drive social structures (laws, regulations, etc.). More importantly, it is also what will push those who are more zealous about the "right" rather than the value to their farthest reaches. Because, after all, the "right" is a necessary condition of the "value."

Trying hard not to be judgmental but only observational, my concern is that the hammer of having the "right" to something will pervert the "value" and, more importantly "values" of privacy just as similar experience with other social "rights" that have been attained, retained, and sustained through the last century. (I would rather leave it at that level of abstraction rather than risk getting into a debate about something unrelated by raising an example; I'm sure you can imagine what they are.)

In one or two of the posts I've referred to above, I've also raise the issue of they vocabulary we're using in this discussion or debate. Particularly, how we are using language that was created for and carries the baggage of the 18th and 19th-century social structures and understandings of property in a 21st-century environment. You kind of touch on that by making a distinction when you said, "I don't care that much about informational privacy."

Good thought thread.

Posted by: Timothy Grayson at August 10, 2005 09:16 AM

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