Privacy and Tracking with Digital Coupons

Data col­lec­tion and min­ing can be quite luc­rat­ive pur­suits for many retail­ers, and tech­no­lo­gic­al advances are provid­ing them with more nov­el and extens­ive meth­ods of doing just that.

Data min­ing is a top­ic I’ve been fas­cin­ated with ever since I was intro­duced to it in uni­ver­sity, and this look at how digit­al coupons track us and provide retail­ers with detailed data is a worthy addi­tion to my vir­tu­al col­lec­tion:

Inven­ted over a cen­tury ago as anonym­ous pieces of paper that could be traded for dis­counts, coupons have evolved into track­ing devices for com­pan­ies that want to learn more about the habits of their cus­tom­ers. […]

Many of today’s digit­al ver­sions use spe­cial bar codes that are packed with inform­a­tion about the life of the coupon: the dates and times it was obtained, viewed and, ulti­mately, redeemed; the store where it was used; per­haps even the search terms typed to find it.

A grow­ing num­ber of retail­ers are mar­ry­ing this data with inform­a­tion dis­covered online and off, such as guesses about your age, sex and income, your buy­ing his­tory, what Web sites you’ve vis­ited, and your cur­rent loc­a­tion or geo­graph­ic routine – cre­at­ing pro­files of cus­tom­ers that are more detailed than ever, accord­ing to mar­ket­ing com­pan­ies. […]

Many com­pan­ies have the tech­no­logy – and cus­tom­ers’ per­mis­sion, thanks to the pri­vacy policies that users accept routinely without read­ing – to track minute details of people’s move­ments.

I’m mostly fine with this sort of track­ing as it is typ­ic­ally done on a large, imper­son­al level: com­plex algorithms are used to determ­ine when to send what vouch­ers to who, all without dir­ect human inter­ven­tion. The piece ends with a thought that is some­what close to my opin­ion on this par­tic­u­lar pri­vacy debate: “I would be con­cerned […] if they get very gran­u­lar and are track­ing me spe­cific­ally.”

via @Foomandoonian