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Posted: June 01, 2011

Rundles wrap-up: TMI

Jeff Rundles

Rundles_jun11.jpg

Ilustration by Drew Thurston

There's a scene in the movie Casablanca where Nazi Major Strasser tells Rick, "We have a complete dossier on you," to which Rick replies, "Are my eyes really brown?"

We don't have Nazis in charge anymore, thank the Lord, but the amount of information readily available about nearly everyone these days could, in such hands, be far more dangerous. When a modern-day Rick says to a modern-day Ilsa, "Here's looking at you, kid," it could easily go far beyond a tender moment and cross the line into downright scary.

There is a case before the U.S. Supreme Court right now concerning the right of pharmacies to sell confidential prescription records to drug makers so they can use that data in their marketing efforts - in other words, find out which doctors are not prescribing their higher-priced brand-name drugs and put the sales hammer on them.

At issue are the "free speech rights" of the pharmaceutical companies to market directly to doctors, and while press reports indicate that such data about individual patients is protected by law, one wonders. I can imagine that a whole host of potential buyers - insurance companies, employers, litigants, prospective mates - would pay dearly for such information. There is, obviously, no question that the information exists, so how protected are we, really, by the law?

Such data mining, as it is called, is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, and I for one don't feel particularly protected. After all, there are reports almost weekly about security breaches involving Social Security numbers, bank account information, credit/debit card access, etc., etc., gleaned by hackers or left on a sensitive laptop in a coffee shop or taxi cab. Plenty of people I don't know are walking around with reams of electronic data about all of us that would be worth a tempting fortune to someone.

There are many people "looking at you, kid." Take, for instance, the case of the furniture rental chain, Aaron's Inc., which apparently has hidden software on its rented computers that tracks the keystrokes, screenshots and even Web cam images of customers - unbeknownst to the customers. A recent lawsuit claims the company used information gathered by the software as the basis for a repossession. So let's see: Is Apple or Microsoft or Dell or Google data mining our keystrokes? To some extent, yes, since they can surely customize search results, but to what other, more nefarious ends? Who really knows? Comforting, isn't it?

There is also a recent report that Apple is updating the software on its iPhone that reduces data collection of a user's geographic location from a year to a week. Really? My phone's spying on me and all that data is in the hands of some underpaid technician in Cupertino or Mumbai.

Then the other day I got a call from Xcel Energy trying to sign me up for its new Saver's Switch, a device that connects to an air conditioning unit on a home and can cycle the power during periods of high electric demand. Customers who enroll can get a $40 bill credit. I told the caller I didn't have A/C, to which he replied, "Oh, I'll make a note of that."

 So now what; they sell that information to HVAC companies? It would explain my targeted junk mail.

On the heels of that call, I got a mailer from King Soopers with "Coupons for your favorite products" - personalized. Yeah, I have a stack of grocery club cards - I like saving as much as the next person - but I wonder who else might be interested in the fact that I eat red meat, take blood pressure medication, have a penchant for jalapenos, consume too much butter, or that lately I have gone gluten free.

That my privacy is being invaded is axiomatic. TMI, indeed. Everything about me - my habits, my prescriptions, my eating habits, my shopping trends, my whereabouts, my financial situation - is an open e-book , and the "protections" offered by the corporate handlers and various laws are but minor obstacles to those who would profit from the data mining.

Here's looking at you, kids.
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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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