Natasha Singer, Shoppers Who Can’t Have Secrets
In a recent documentary called “Erasing David,” the London-based filmmaker David Bond attempts to disappear from Britain’s surveillance grid, hiring experts from the security firm Cerberus to track him using all the information they can glean about him while he tries to outrun them. In the course of the film, the detectives even obtain a copy of the birth certificate of his daughter, then 18 months old.
But the real shocker is the information Mr. Bond is able to obtain about himself — by taking advantage of a data protection law in Britain that requires public agencies and private businesses to release a person’s data file upon his or her written request.
In one scene, Mr. Bond receives a phonebook-thick printout from Amazon.com listing everything he ever bought on the site; the addresses of every person to whom he ever sent a gift; and even the products he perused but did not ultimately buy.
He also receives a file from his bank, including a transcript of an irate phone call he once made after the bank lost one of his checks. The transcript noted that he seemed angry and raised his voice.
“It read like a mini-Stasi file,” Mr. Bond said when I called him last week. When recorded messages inform us that we may be taped “for training or quality assurance purposes,” he reminded me, we should remember that our conversation may end up in our dossiers.
INSPIRED by Mr. Bond’s odyssey, I called some companies with whom I do business.
A customer service representative at a bookstore chain where I have a discount card told me that the company maintains a list of the amount each member spends on each transaction so that the store can tell people how much money they saved at the end of the year. But a loyalty cardholder is not permitted to obtain his or her own purchase history.
Then I called an online travel agency and asked if I could get copies of my flight history and phone transcripts. I was regretting a disgruntled call I made to the agency a few months ago after being stranded at an airport in a blizzard. The customer care rep said clients couldn’t obtain their own transcripts unless it was for legal purposes.
Was I being taped this time, too? They always tape, he said.
They always tape. They always record what you look at. They always know who you send things to.
We should just imagine they know everything of a merchantile nature, that what we buy, use, or jest inspect is available. And all the brans we talk about, or post pictures of.
There is no secrecy in this world: it’s all in effect public, and than managed privately by retailers and brands. Publicy leads to a naked society, where they know that I wear Kangol and boxers, black Tshirts from Old navy, and LL Bean Winter Hunting Boots.