EDITORIAL: You want privacy?

WHAT DID YOU HAVE FOR DINNER the last time you went to a restaurant in Columbia County? Sometimes you forget, so wouldn’t it be great if you could get an email the next day, reminding you what you ate and drank, where and at what time you ate and drank it and asking you how you liked what you had?

It might have been a good meal, but maybe not quite good enough to require preserving it forever on the internet. If only you had a choice. Assuming you use a credit card you already know that card transactions are immortal in ways that only members of the digital nerd-o-sphere understand. Now it seems we must accept ever greater intrusions into what’s left of our privacy. We’re told it’s all for the sake of progress.

And there it was in my email about two hours after paying the bill at this Chatham restaurant: not only a detailed meal receipt but a handy map to remind me how to find the restaurant, which is a block from my home. Also included was a schedule of upcoming restaurant events and a choice of two proto-emojis–a smiley face or a sad one–with a request to rate not the food but the “experience.” There was also the name of the company that supplies this service.

Square, Inc. has a helpful website, which explains its privacy policies, kind of. Near the top of the screen it says: ” We need to collect information about you to provide you with the Services or the support you request.” That’s clear except for those of us who have no idea when or where we told this company that we wanted any of its services.

It’s easy to understand why a restaurant would want to offer a service like this, especially for younger customers. But it illustrates how difficult it has become to avoid intrusive online services, even the ones that aren’t criminal conspiracies. It seems sometimes like we have no way to fight back.

This forced surrender of privacy and the commercial exploitation of data to manipulate consumer behavior might become a little bit more difficult at the end of next week. On May 25 the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will take effect. It’s a law adopted by the European Union but it will have an impact on U.S. companies that have offices or conduct business in Europe. It requires companies to make clear how they will use the data they collect and limits what they do with it by demanding that they get consent from individual consumers. It’s important enough that Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook will adhere to the GDPR.

The restraints on the collection and use of personal data is important locally as well as on a global scale. The right to privacy, almost by definition, is a right we are likely to exercise where we live and work.

Business these days relies on the collection of data. Us, too. The Columbia Paper and www.columbiapaper.com collect information on our customers. If you’re a subscriber, you consent to share it with us so we can mail you your paper. That same information might be useful to other businesses that want to reach our readers. Our policy is that we don’t sell what we know about you.

The problem is we cannot guarantee that some other business may be using our data without our realizing it. And we can’t prevent it if we don’t know it’s happening.

The GDPR will have flaws but let’s hope one of its virtues will be higher barriers designed to prevent the unauthorized collection and use of personal date from third parties.

We don’t know whether this new regulation will prevent unwanted email chasing people before we’ve digested the meal we just paid for. But we can hope that it slows these new intrusions in our lives and makes it easier for us to opt out.

It was easy to find the place on the Square website to turn off the email receipt service, although it seems likely the data won’t ever go away. And there’s no reason to blame the restaurant for wanting to add some value to the meal. That helps the restaurant stay in business… maybe.

But wouldn’t it be a real service to alert diners before they order a meal to expect a digital receipt by email? Respecting the privacy of your customers is not only good business, it’s something that good neighbors ought to do.

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