The concept of Big Brother following our every move is one of the most common clichés in literature and film. However, unlike other classic sci-fi themes like an invasion of UFOs or an attack of giant mutant insects, the threat that technology poses to privacy is real.
Recently I, like many other sci-fi-loving box-office sheep, found myself watching "Minority Report," Steven Spielbergs technology-driven thriller. To me, the scariest thing in the movie was the way in which biometric technology (in this case, eye scanners) were used not only by police to hunt down criminals, but also by businesses to track consumers and tailor ads and customer service to them.
While the level of biometric technology implementation in the movie doesnt exist yet, I find the same haunting level of profiling done on me on a daily basis at seemingly harmless places such as online sites and the local grocery store.
Safeway, my neighborhood grocery, uses a magnetic "club card" to track my product purchases. Consumers that dont use the Safeway Club Card arent entitled to typical in-store sales, and this is how Safeway encourages people to use these cards.
I honestly dont mind if my information is being used as part of a large sample data collection, since that information—when used correctly—will ensure that when I go buy groceries at Safeway, my favorite box of cereal is there.
What gets on my nerves is when vendors use my purchase history to profile me and put me into a little box in their database. Hey, just because I went to see "Minority Report" doesnt mean I want to have somebody actively peddling me "AI" and "E.T." DVDs, since other people who saw that movie (who are now linked to me via my shopping profile) also bought those products.
The most laughable aspect of the whole profiling business is that vendors try to switch that word with the euphemism "personalization," when in fact their use of technology reduces me from being a person to a data generalization.
Profiling, unfortunately, is here to stay and it will likely get worse, given that ever-improving data networks will allow companies to access our personal data from just about anywhere. It is important to keep tabs on privacy protection legislation and vote down bills that threaten to compromise privacy.
For more information on privacy and legislation, check out www.epic.org, the homepage for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. EPICs page on consumer profiling is also a great resource www.epic.org/privacy/profiling/.
Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.