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Do you buy books online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble? When you’re at the checkout counter in your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, do you pay with your credit card or do you pay in cash? Have you ever considered the implications of these decisions?
By now, most people realize that the details of all online and credit card transactions will be stored in multiple databases indefinitely. And let’s face it, as it pertains to our lifetimes, “indefinitely” means “forever.”
Consider a couple scenarios in which you could regret leaving such an open record of your reading preferences:
Example 1 — Let’s say that you have a close relative battling depression and you have bought several books online about the disease to better understand what your loved one is going through. Now let’s say that recently you have decided to return to a traditional job, after having been self-employed for the past few years. You find a great opportunity and you impress the employer with your interview. But the boss has been burned by some bad hires in the past and, since he can’t directly confirm your recent work history, he decides to play it safe and hire a service to look into your background.
The private investigator hired by the service gains access — never mind how — to your credit card records and online purchase history. In his final report, he includes that series of books you purchased about coping with depression. This spooks the employer just enough to not take a chance on you. He goes with his second preference instead. You’re not asked back and you never learn the real reason.
Example 2 — Let’s say that, as a fan of detective fiction and the “CSI” television show, you have become fascinated with the topic of poisons and how they affect the human body. You buy a couple of books online about naturally-occurring toxins. A month later, there are two homicides in your city in which the victims were poisoned. The FBI investigator in charge of the case has no leads whatsoever and, needing to start somewhere, decides to assemble a list of residents within twenty miles who have purchased books containing information about the toxins involved in the deaths. How would you feel about being on that list?
These examples are just the paranoid rants of a mistrustful person, right? If you think them far-fetched or wildly improbable, then you have not been keeping up with the times we live in. Back in the 1990s, online merchants and data aggregators were beginning to figure out how to build and exploit powerful consumer marketing databases. They were just then realizing that these sophisticated databases could be sold for big money to subscribing clients, including the U.S. government. A decade later now, it is all very real.
The good news is that there are solutions at hand. When you are at the local bookstore, be sure to pay in cash. If online, find ways to avoid using your true credit card or identity when clicking that “Add to Cart” button. Yes, it can be done with a just a bit of planning and effort. The resulting increase to your personal privacy will be immeasurable.
So forget about those few extra frequent flyer miles or your measly 1% cash back. How could you sell your peace of mind so cheaply?