What’s the harm?


Relevant to the discussion we’re having at the moment in class, here’s a hypothetical: Your local supermarket chain uses software at the checkout line that compares the set of stuff you’ve just bought with the entire population of purchases by all shoppers, and from this derives a guess at what other stuff you might be interested in buying. It uses this guess to print a coupon on the back of your receipt. It then feeds your list of purchases into its general database of purchases but it records no identifying info about you – no credit card number, no discount card number, etc.  Let’s say the guesses it makes on this basis are good, so lots of shoppers are happy to find the discount coupon on the back of their receipt.

Does anyone think that this activity ought to require an opt in? That it ought to be regulated?


  1. kparker

    March 31, 2008 @ 2:23 pm


    I don’t think it needs an opt in, but I’d rather it ask me if I might want to buy other things before I check out rather than just give me a coupon (which I think is pretty much what Amazon does and is great when shopping).

  2. mpollock

    March 31, 2008 @ 11:16 pm


    Yeah, this doesn’t bother me in the same way the more person-specific, online targeting does. It’s a bit more akin to the real world targeting Cory was talking about in class today, and I feel the arguably intrusive store activity (printing out coupons based on what you buy) is more tailored to the consumer’s public, real-world transaction.

    To illustrate my thinking: if a person is buying certain items in full view of the clerk and people behind her in line, it seems she doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy there. The transaction is public, and the regurgitating of gathered data via the coupons is immediate and limited to that one transaction. However, if that same person buys some things online, or writes some emails in Gmail, I think she DOES have the reasonable expectation that the contents of her transactions are private. An ad shown on the purchase confirmation page based on only what she bought just then would probably be a good online analogy for the coupons, and wouldn’t really bother me. Email’s a different story, though — there’s no commercial transaction, and the privacy expectation is much stronger.

    Maybe the reason I’m more comfortable with the store coupons, though, is that my local grocery store has been doing that for years, so I’ve come to expect it. 🙂

    As for the rewards-based programs that track your purchases — those are entirely opt in, because you need to swipe your card in order for them to track you. And at least with the CVS one, you ARE compensated old-world style for your data — they issue you coupons that function like mini-CVS gift cards. This set-up seems more fair to me. Maybe Google should adopt a similar rewards program?