By s.i. wells
Every time you go to the mall, someone is watching. Every time you buy something and pay with a credit card, someone is keeping a precise record of your behavior. Every time you make a phone call on your cell phone, rent a movie from your cable company or withdraw money from your credit card account, your digital footprints are being mapped, categorized and quantified.
For example, if you go to the mall and use the same credit card for each purchase, Citibank or Visa or Mastercard or Discover or whatever card you use will faithfully record each transaction. “So what!” you say. “They know I bought a Big Mac, a pair of UGGs, a U2 album and a book on Tarot yesterday afternoon. Big deal.”
Be forewarned. That attitude is so last century. Today the scientific fields of data mining, informatics and artificial intelligence are advancing at light speed and to your total disadvantage. Stories are now surfacing that someone’s credit card was denied at the Gap or Target or Wal-Mart because the credit card provider instantly analyzed his purchasing habits, his financial ability as quantified by his FICO score, the amount of the mortgage on his house, whether it was a sub-prime, Alt-A or a prime loan, the value of his house or condominium in relation to comparable sales in his neighborhood, whether he has student loans, a car, a boat, an airplane or a vacation condominium. At the precise moment his card was swiped through the cash register, the credit card company made a risk analysis of his creditworthiness. Even though he had $1,000 of credit available yesterday, today it may not be relevant. One day he is shopping at North Face and the next day he is at the Dollar Store to be thrifty. Suddenly, the great Oz turns the computer wizards lose to slice, dice and calculate his ability to exist financially. In the blink of an eye, his credit line is instantly snuffed out because “thrifty” is interpreted as “about to default”. Even if he carried no balance on his credit cards, paid on time, didn’t have too many cards and had been employed for a decade. It is not that he is suddenly a bad person, but it is his credit profile that has been altered because of a change in his buying patterns. His mystical credit avatar has instantly and profoundly morphed into the Darth Vader of debtors.
The wheels are in motion…the scientists are busy inventing the tools…and the Manhattan project of data deciphering, behavior modeling and personal profiling is coming online so quickly that your loss of privacy will be more like an electrocution of your privacy than a slow evaporation of it.
Surf the internet, put a profile on Facebook or Ning, buy something on iTunes or Amazon, have a website for your family photos or your latest efforts at poetry. Every digit you create is waiting to be mined and tossed into the wizard’s hopper from which life decision are made. Numbers do not lie. Crunch the numbers. Follow the digits and glean a person’s inner being by analyzing his preferred brand of shoes or the flavor of the ice cream in the cone she just purchased. Bring in the behavioral psychologists, the mathematicians and the informaticians. Roll the sacred dice and wave the magic computer algorithm to discern what a person will buy, in what circumstance will he or she be more likely to buy and when he or she has bought too much, squash ‘em like a bug on the floor.
The culprit, the perp, the co-conspirator and the innocent victim in this prime time drama, however, are all you. You are providing the fuel to destroy your own freedom. Buy a book on Marx or Lenin with your Visa card and one day you will be categorized in some circles as seeking a revival of communism. Buy an “R” rated DVD, a Ramones poster and a bottle of Jack Daniels and you will be labeled as part of the alternative fringe…not cool or hip, but dangerous and subversive to the religious right.
It is time to wake up and realize the enemy of your freedom and your privacy is you. Stop the trail of digits. Pay with cash, use your debit card or a pre-paid cash card and don’t clear transactions through the Visa or Mastercard or American Express or Discover systems. Don’t let “them” have your fingerprints. Don’t voluntarily incriminate yourself and expose your behavior so “they” can rule your life. Don’t let “them” tell you what you like, what you bought before and might like to buy now. Don’t be fooled into believing these are innocent enhancements to your shopping experience.
The Latin phrase “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware” is as true today as it was when it was first added to English common law. It is not sufficient to “beware” of the goods you buy, but also of how you transact the purchase. You will “reap what you sow” as you leave your digital trail across the economic plains. The assault on your privacy and on your personal gestalt is fierce and growing more sophisticated each day. To ignore the implications is to be a victim. To be your own executioner is, of course, your choice. To pay corporate America a fee so they can own your soul is, however, a transaction not even the devil would countenance.