Legitimate Privacy Fears

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2004-09-19 Print this article Print

That all said, there are legitimate privacy fears surrounding the amount of data retailers are going to be able to collect in the coming years, and any retail IT exec who treats those concerns blithely is going to find out that it may not be Wal-Mart that will do you in. As retailers get more sophisticated about multichannel integration and start to do their own triangulation of information about the same consumers, they could go from the catalogues toll-free number to various brick-and-mortar locations, and then to trolling on your Web site and perhaps integrating Google and eBay activities ... now there is where privacy experts should be sweating. Some retailers have started experimenting with turning PDAs and cell phones into POS(point of sale) devices. Click here to read how.
Its said that familiarity breeds contempt, but in the retail tech world, familiarity also breeds trust, comfort and that ever-illusive quality known as comprehension. A much bigger privacy threat is the ability for everyones cell phone to not only track a consumers location much better than RFID can, but to literally be transformed into a super-easy listening device. Just set the phones ring to "silent," and the rest is automatic.
Why no uproar over that privacy risk? Because consumer media representatives and privacy advocates understand and routinely use cell phones, they understand the practical devices and are not afraid of them. This is the same reason those weird Internet scare stories stopped appearing: As consumers started using the Web routinely, it ceased being the Bogeyman and turned into an everyday tool. When preparing to deal with a privacy strategy—for RFID or anything else—another crucial factor is that perception trumps reality every time, no contest. In classical cinema terms, think of reality as Bambi and perception as Godzilla. (I love the classics.) 7-Elevens CIO has his own take on RFID strategies. Click here for his views. Even if the reality is that RFID does not pose any true privacy threat, if your customers all believe that it does, you must treat their fears with respect. Well, maybe "respect" is a bit much. Humoring them might be more apropos. Think of what happened at U.S. airports shortly after 9/11. Fatigues-wearing National Guard troops armed with automatic weapons patrolled public areas. Most government officials were not expecting terrorists to storm the airport. The show of force was intended to comfort passengers more than anything else. A similar showing with RFID might be in order. Loudly and frequently declare privacy policies, where you pledge in plain language to not do the things that you never had any intention of doing anyway. Demonstrate the extremely limited range of the readers. (Like that will be difficult.) And allow consumers to opt out of as much as you can. Few will take you up on the offer, but the gesture of making the offer is almost all that matters. Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com. To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here. Check out eWEEK.coms Retail Center for the latest news, views and analysis of this vital industry.

Evan Schuman is the editor of CIOInsight.com's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at Evan.Schuman@ziffdavisenterprise.com.

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