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UPDATED - See Following
I will start by saying this post will seem terribly quaint in just a few years.
Visualize this: It's just a few years from now. You get an email coupon from a restaurant you know about but have never visited. The teaser headline reads, "So how come you keep driving by and never stop in for a piece of our real homemade lasagna?"

Which may seem a little eerie, as you do indeed drive by the place a couple of times a week, and you've been guiltily living on more frozen lasagna dinners than you'd like to admit. You've become used to ads and solicitations using awfully personal and private details about you and your life, but this one makes you glance over your shoulder to see who's watching.

Welcome to the world of consumer big data... and Vigilant Solutions, Perceptics and Motorola.

The marketing company trying to lure you into the restaurant already knows your grocery habits, because you kindly provide your Rewards Card tracking ID every time you load up on milk, bread, diet Pepsi, Kellogg's Corn Flakes (the 23-ounce box, not the 14-ounce one)... and Stouffer's Homestyle Lasagna dinners.

By providing your card and getting your special discounts, you're also providing the grocery store with a way to associate all your purchases with you, individually, regardless of which store you visit or how you pay. (It's illegal to track purchases by things like account or credit card numbers in most places, by the way, so that's why they push that special tracking number on you. But the benefits are great, right?) So they know that you're chowing down on four or five Homestyle Lasagnas a month. They don't much care, except to know that offering you coupons for other brands and kinds of frozen Italian dinners is likely to pay off.

The grocery store sells this information back to the major product providers. That's why you got all those offers for diet products last month, because Nestlé noted you were purchasing their Stouffer-brand calorie-fest and, charmingly, a diet drink. (From competing PepsiCo, which made their blood boil, but oh well. They'll get you next time.) So you look like a great target for pricey diet foods if they can leverage your obvious guilt against your tendency to indulge in microwave fat food.

Which doesn't explain how Mama Leone's knew about your guilty indulgence. They're independent (a rarity in these days of even small restaurant chains having very, very big parents). Did they go around asking grocery stores for lists of people who eat salty, fatty, engineered falso Italian food? No, of course not. Their marketing company asked an aggregator of consumer data like Acxiom for the information, and for a modest fee, they were happy to pull out a very selected list of people who lived in the area and regularly bought frozen Italianoid dinners. Since the grocery store and/or Nestlé, Kraft, PepsiCo et al. sell their accumulated data to these aggregators, every grocery purchase you've made for the last decade is in their big data pile, ready to be sifted, correlated and connected to provide that hypertargeted list of 500 people Mama Leone's is after. (Yes, we're talking big, big, big data.)

But wait a minute... how in the hell could Mama know you keep driving by her place?

Welcome to the world of LPR and ALPR... License Plate Recognition, and Automated License Plate Recognition. If you drive on public roads (and quite a few semi-public ones like shopping mall parking lots), you are probably in the gaze of cameras that spot your license plate, record it, and geotag it to time and location. Enough such tags, and it's possible to reconstruct a car's path, hour by hour, day after day, 366 days a leap year... all automatically and with almost as much reliability as the GPS pingers used by trucking and car rental companies. Entirely without your direct consent and almost certainly without your knowledge. (You have given your permission, though, through ignorance, apathy and misdirection.)

Companies like Vigilant Solutions developed their LPR/ALPR products for law enforcement, and sell them on the basis of efficiency and officer safety. Before you're even pulled over for ticking that yellow light, a camera has captured your plate number and the cruiser's computer has pulled up your record. The cop knows whether you're Cindy Soccermom, late for a game, or a dangerous felon likely to make the cop's day a very bad one. It's hard to argue with the intent of scenarios like this... but if your Fourth Amendment bone isn't tickling, you're probably one of those who has nothing to hide and thus no worries about cops randomly searching your property.

Some jurisdictions allow LPR to be used only like a radar gun — under the active and selective control of a trained user and with at least some trace of probable cause. Many, however, have enabled fully automatic systems that target and collect every license plate that comes within view. If you're a wanted man, don't drive your own car around, because the first State Police cruiser that gets a glimpse of your plate (even while the driver is otherwise occupied) is going to sound the alarm. Ditto for those of you with expired registrations, if the cop who spots you isn't doing anything more important that moment.

...But I'm going to stop there on that track. Renegade Consumer is not about Fourth Amendment issues or the debates of modern law enforcement... or even the use of such data by government. I'm not saying the practices are good or bad; go investigate and take your own stand if you like. However, we've reached an important border in renegade issues and need to turn aside in order to stay on track.

That track is that this same system, same automated collection of geotagged license plate data, is available to and used by private industry. The data aggregators include this growing base of information about vehicle locations and movements. It is now possible for private entities, answering to no one but their owners and stockholders, to track individual vehicles with a precision and scope we might have found frightening in the hands of the FBI, CIA, UNCLE or even S.H.I.E.L.D. a few years ago. (Since the aggregators are also tracking detailed purchase information, it is not hard to associate the vehicle movements with individuals making the purchases, taking the surveillance to a deeper level. Don't pretend it wasn't you that stopped at Goldie's Adult Novelties last Friday afternoon, with your hoodie pulled low, and paid $127.43 in cash for... well, I'll keep your secret. It's a good look on you, though. So cute.)

So when the marketing whiz for Mama Leone's requested the targeting data, he framed the request to include people who had bought frozen Italian, lived within a 5-mile radius and had a record of driving by regularly. Lucky you was one of the 500 or so... and damn if you aren't thinking about the special lasagna deal there right now.

It is this invasion of privacy, the glassification of our domicile walls, the perpetual body-scanning of our every action, and the aggregation of all this data to no purpose but to find a more efficient way to extract money from us, that Renegade Consumer strenuously opposes. We'll leave the mirror issues in government and law enforcement to others, but want to make it clear that whatever the sins of the state are in tracking individuals in this manner, they are tenfold when used by private industry for purely profit-driven purposes. If we do not give law enforcement the right to follow and search us without cause, how can we tolerate the marketing-industrial complex doing the same just to shake us down a little more efficiently?

Even if we do judge it appropriate for civic forces to use this capability, how does that justify its use to further control us as economic individuals? When did the last bastions of privacy fall to the assault on our right to economic self-determination? And what are we going to do about it, fellow renegades?

 

(So, yes, this post will seem terribly quaint and obvious in a few years... but don't go away with any idea that this is a projection about future tech. All of the above exists now. All of the above is being used exactly as described... it just isn't very widespread back here in mid-2014. How are things going a few years ahead? Start that diet yet? Does the costume still fit?)


April, 2019

...And An Update, Five Years On

An article in the New York Times outlines the rising problems with privacy, individual liberty and personal safety related to automated plate tracking.

This op-ed neatly sums up where reliance on automated plate tracking has led to burderline Fourth Amendment violations, and innocent drivers being placed in terrifying situations because of misinformation.

Can a tragic, possibly fatal incident based on such misuse of wholesale individual tracking be far behind?

I have deliberately steered away from discussion of food from the renegade viewpoint, mostly because it's too large of an issue to engage in these early days. That creates a frustrating paradox, because food as a consumer product is the one thing nearly all of us have in common, and there is just so much unethical and manipulative effort by the industry to examine.

However, food is scrutinized from so many viewpoints, including some that are in tune with renegade thought, that I am comfortable leaving the issue to itself for the time being. I will make my usual recommendation that renegade consumers interested in the overall problem of how food is marketed and shaped to control buyer choices - at the detriment of nutrition and consumer health - read Michael Moss's brilliant and groundbreaking Salt Sugar Fat (Random House, 2014).

Once in a while, though, the world serves up a hearty dish of food-related consumer idiocy so tasty and tempting I just have to notice and comment. In this case, it's the New York Times and their handling of two well-intended but peculiarly contradictory articles. (Links are provided but not guaranteed, as NYT content is behind a partial paywall.)

Captain Crunch box cover
The Captain says, "Buy me, kids!"

In the May 18, 2014 Sunday Review section, the lead article ("Always Hungry? Here's Why") is an intelligent examination of how nutrition research has again shown that food calories are not all equal, and that the body may process carbohydrate calories differently from fat calories. The issue is critical in understanding obesity because a vast number of processed foods, especially those seeking to shed fat numbers in the nutrition panel, use increasing amounts of sugars, starches and other carbs, especially highly processed ones. The gist of the article is that simple calorie-counting may be of little value if processed carbohydrates trick the body into handling hunger and fat storage differently from fat and protein.

The continuation of the article leads directly into another article on the practice of using faces and eyes as marketing images ("Psst. Look Over Here.") Recent studies have shown that product packaging with even cartoon approximations of a face, especially eyes that seem to be looking at the shopper, has strong buyer appeal. Facial recognition is a deeply-encoded ability in humans, so powerful that even infants and the nearly blind can perceive nuances of facial positioning and expression. It is unsurprising that the behavioral masters of marketing have learned to use this cognitive function as a tool to sell things. The article speaks in admiring terms about the marketing and branding industries' success at selling breakfast cereal using googly-eyed characters that appear to be looking directly at the shopper. The research being reported on, and the article, emphasize that these cereals are largely aimed at children, and that the cuddly, imploring characters are often positioned and drawn so as to be looking down at passing child-shopper eyes.

Lucky Charms box cover
Sir Charms says, "Aye, let's be good friends, lads and lassies!"

From the renegade perspective, there are two surprising things here. The first is that the Times could run the first article and then, beginning in literally the next column inch, follow with a second piece that seems oblivious to the issues raised by the first. Furthermore, that they could run one article damning the food industry for pushing cheap, bliss-hammering, obesity-fostering carbs from every grocery shelf... and then, in the next spatter of ink, actually laud the practice of selling these largely worthless, nutritionally-questionable products to children using a deeply embedded cognitive reaction. The "eyes" article concludes with a smarmy quote from a branding expert about how having a product 'look you in the eye' is the 'mark of a real friend.'

And there we have an example of what the renegade philosophy is all about — that we should not have to defend ourselves on a hindbrain level from being manipulated into buying a product that is somewhere between worthless and actively bad for us. Worse: that our children, without even the feeble acquired defenses of adults in the consumer arena, are the ones being enticed by cute, big-eyed cartoon characters to fill up on these crap foods.

The other surprising thing here is the timing of the research findings on which the latter article is based (along with quite a few other recent news and analysis articles). It is surprising, shocking, newsmaking information that marketing uses Mona Lisa eyes to sell products - especially to children, and by invoking a deeply-embedded cognitive response almost impossible to screen out or consciously control. Wow! Incredible! How awful!

Frosted Flakes box cover
Tony says, "Get mom to buy you a grrreat friend, kids!"

Now take one step back and switch on your renegade perceptions. This practice is not new. It was not invented last year. The research did not follow hard on the heels of the technique. We have had products, especially things like sugar-laden, pure-carb kids' cereals giving us the big puppy eyes for decades. Forty years? Fifty? At least. It has taken most of an adult life for researchers to catch on to this deeply manipulative, highly effective practice and make a public accounting of it... but the manufacturers knew it. The marketers, branders and package designers knew it. We've been strongly influenced to buy a crap product — a product most parents know is health-impinging crap — in part because of this subtle, powerful, secret-in-plain-sight manipulation.

Think about that a while. If you haven't yet fully grasped the renegade position that we are all manipulated at our basest levels by some of the most sophisticated behavioral analysis, manipulation and engineering in existence, that such manipulation completely surrounds... envelops... smothers us, and that it takes place on levels even a wary adult cannot easily resist (or even perceive)... this is a good moment to complete your grasp. If you disbelieve that such manipulation exists or has any power over "smart" consumers, time to read the linked articles and then again this commentary, and think it over. If you are among those who active reject the notion that marketing manipulation has any power beyond simple, obvious tricks that fool only the stupid, the unwary and the gullible... open your eyes.

The White House has released a new report on the gathering and usage of data generated by individuals that for the first time shows high-level awareness of “big data”'s danger to individual privacy and consumer freedom.

The Podesta report, available here as a PDF, contains a great deal of interesting material about government gathering of data on individual actions and activities, including the widely-reported collection and analysis of cell phone call data by the NSA. More importantly, though, the report recognizes that the same techniques are used by US and international companies to generate personal, buying and activity profiles that enable highly sophisticated targeting of marketing efforts.

...continue reading "The Podesta Report: A ray of light in the privacy darkness"

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May Day is one of those minor holiday names that I found amusing in my childhood... every year, it seemed like one classmate or another found it funny to run around the playground screaming “Mayday! Mayday!” until a teacher or monitor told them to shush. Then we'd do it again.
I still find the pun amusing, but only until I remember that we're here for a serious purpose. It's May Day, 2014... and it's time for consumers to scream mayday.

For too long — generations — we've let our lives be shaped, controlled and manipulated to serve a system that regards us as nothing more than economic batteries. We have lost our value as individuals; we are mere draft horses, hamsters in a wheel, generic D-cells powering an economic system that destroys everything it can reach, including our lives, in the name of profits. We have lost our purpose other than to believe we love powering this system with our days and efforts. We have lost our future of being anything other than maximized engines of consumption... and it's time to do something effective about it.

...continue reading "May Day for Consumers"