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Web Coupons And The End Of Privacy

As another indication of the transition to a publicy-based society, web-based coupons carry a whole lot of information abou the person that found and printed those coupons:

Stephanie Clifford, Web Coupons Know Lots About You, And They Tell

Coupons from the Internet are the fastest-growing part of the coupon world — their redemption increased 263 percent to about 50 million coupons in 2009, according to the coupon-processing company Inmar. Using coupons to link Internet behavior with in-store shopping lets retailers figure out which ad slogans or online product promotions work best, how long someone waits between searching and shopping, even what offers a shopper will respond to or ignore.

The coupons can, in some cases, be tracked not just to an anonymous shopper but to an identifiable person: a retailer could know that Amy Smith printed a 15 percent-off coupon after searching for appliance discounts at Ebates.com on Friday at 1:30 p.m. and redeemed it later that afternoon at the store.

“You can really key into who they are,” said Don Batsford Jr., who works on online advertising for the tax preparation company Jackson Hewitt, whose coupons include search information. “It’s almost like being able to read their mind, because they’re confessing to the search engine what they’re looking for.”

While companies once had a slim dossier on each consumer, they now have databases packed with information. And every time a person goes shopping, visits a Web site or buys something, the database gets another entry.

“There is a feeling that anonymity in this space is kind of dead,” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology’s information privacy programs.

The coupons can be devised in ways that circumvent a ad service’s efforts to make information anonymized. By creating specific URLs for different searches, an advertizer or coupon provider can triangulate a mouseclick back to a specific person or at least specific IP addresses if and when they take definable actions.

This means that they can make different offers to different people:

The coupon efforts are nascent, but coupon companies say that when they get more data about how people are responding, they can make different offers to different consumers.

“Over time,” Mr. Treiber said, “we’ll be able to do much better profiling around certain I.P. addresses, to say, hey, this I.P. address is showing a proclivity for printing clothing apparel coupons and is really only responding to coupons greater than 20 percent off.”

That alarms some privacy advocates.

Companies can “offer you, perhaps, less desirable products than they offer me, or offer you the same product as they offer me but at a higher price,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the United States Public Interest Research Group, which has asked the Federal Trade Commission for tighter rules on online advertising. “There really have been no rules set up for this ecosystem.”

No rules because we have no social mores in place, yet; and by the time we do, our sensitivities may have shifted so far that we will never get back to something like 1999ish privacy.

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