Your privacy is gone, and it's never coming back.
A report that Target accidentally disclosed a teen girl's pregnancy to her father shows the logical extreme to which retailers can take the search for more information about their customers.
This is what happens when you hand the cashier at your local drug store or grocery store any of a zillion plastic reward cards. Sure you get discounts, coupons or cash back. But you also hand over information that allows the retailer to create a complete personality profile based on your shopping habits.
That is what apparently happened to an unidentified high school girl who Target identified as pregnant from her pattern of purchases. According to a story in the New York Times Magazine, the girl's father complained about a mailer sent to her featuring ads for maternity clothing and other items that might be needed by a mother-to be. The father complained to Target about the "error" but soon discovered that Target knew his teenage daughter was pregnant before he did!
In one way there is nothing unethical about Target and other retailers trying to encourage customer loyalty by offering discounts to those willing to scan their card every time they go through the checkout lines. After all, you have to sign up for the card. You have to decide to pull it out whenever the cashier asks if you have a loyalty card. And you are responsible for reading, as I just did for the very first time, the privacy policies of retailers and consumer-product companies such as Dunkin' Donuts, Cabela's, Budweiser and Bayer.
I picked those four since consumers might not necessarily want others to know about their shopping habits when it comes to items like fattening food, weapons, alcoholic beverages or birth control pills. While each company promises to protect your personal information it is not clear that their promotions or rebates might not alert someone else that you like nothing better than a weekend of donuts, firearms, beer and making whoopee. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent the data they have on you from being sold to other companies that might buy them. Nor is it really clear what steps they take to protect your identity or to minimize the accidental release of information.
You don’t have to be paranoid to be concerned that privacy left the building long ago. In an electronic era of credit cards, loyalty cards, online banking and website cookies, information about your shopping and browsing habits moves at the speed of light. As soon as you do anything, someone else knows. Retailers and advertisers might know things about you before your family and closest friends do. And the outfit you trust to protect your data can in the blink of an eye be in the hands of another that you may not.
There is little you can do to prevent this. Still, retailers owe it to us to do a better job of protecting our privacy. In tough economic times, the vast majority of consumers will easily sacrifice a bit of privacy to save a few dollars. But as the story of the father, Target and the maternity ads should make very clear, that sacrifice comes at a price that is poorly understood and can be quite high.
We should not allow our ability to control who knows what about us to be crushed under a mountain of privacy pledges, security policies and confidentiality riders that are not worth the unread websites and disclosure forms they appear on. If privacy is to have any future in an age of sophisticated marketing and consumer purchase monitoring it will need far more attention from consumers and regulators.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.