Cold Plated

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?

Renegade One

(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?)

One thought on “Cold Plated

  1. Peter Scott

    *You* and the denizens of this forum probably wouldn't get that email, because the same data aggregators would have flagged you as intelligent/independent, and likely to be repelled by obvious intrusions. Please speculate on what form their outreach may take instead. I would like to know, for self-defense purposes.

    I do find it quite easy to argue with the intention of blanket government surveillance, on quality control grounds. All information gathering and processing is imperfect. Mistakes will occur with probability p > 0, and therefore the more surveillance is undertaken, the more mistakes will happen. In the case of government surveillance, the consequences of mistakes can range up to unlawful imprisonment or death, considerably worse than privacy invasions by businesses. This is not overreaching. Every week there are police raids on wrong addresses and detentions of the wrong people based on misinformation or bungled processing of information. The family dog is invariably shot in the process and sometimes, so are innocent people. For the logical extension of this path, see "Brazil."

    None of this is to say that the occasional negligent imprisonment and even execution of an individual by the government might not be outweighed by the wholesale theft of privacy of the entire population by the private sector. What I find most insidious and egregious about the latter is the degree to which it numbs the populace to their rights. As in, when Scott McNealy said, "You no longer have any privacy; get over it." A vast swath of the population now holds the same view: that there is nothing wrong with corporations knowing everything about them. Their reaction to the example you give would be, "Well, why wouldn't I find it useful to know about lasagna nearby, if that is something I like?" They will neither understand nor appreciate the argument that now businesses are prioritizing their impulses for them. The other possibilities that might have occurred to them at that point – including, for instance, healthier but less commercially viable foods – are crowded out by the lasagna message.

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