This column appeared in Arab News on Dec. 29, 2013:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The revelations this year by former CIA employee Edward Snowden that the US National Security Agency has been spying on the phone calls and e-mails of Americans, foreigners and their leaders were astounding and disturbing.
The official justification from American officials for such unprecedented large-scale snooping was not reassuring: That this was necessary to disrupt terrorist plots against the United States. Further justification that most of this data was processed in bulk format through automated computer programs looking for key words such as “Al-Qaeda” or “jihad” was not very comforting. Nor was the reassurance that the NSA over-collected so much information that it was humanly impossible to sift through all of it individually. That was supposed to make us feel better about having our privacy violated? I hardly think so.Yet in all of the hullabaloo over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor for stealing thousands of top secret documents from the US government, a crucial debate has been avoided entirely: What about the rivers of personal data that private businesses collect on us every day of our lives in shops and online?
Internet expert Evgeny Morozov recently asked this question in an article he wrote for the Financial Times. “What eludes Snowden — along with most of his detractors and supporters — is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not,” wrote Morozov.
A few months ago I was startled to find out that my local pharmacy here in Brasilia had been keeping track of every single purchase I made there by insisting that I enroll in their discount program. Years ago I had given them my CPF number, which is a taxpayer’s number that every adult resident in Brazil must have. Without a CPF you cannot buy a SIM card for your mobile phone, or make any purchase of appliances, automobiles or plane tickets. Without giving them my CPF number I would not have gotten the significant discounts on prescription medicines that I had been getting so far. I found out when I bought two boxes of a prescription medicine for my neck. The pharmacy had only one box, but said they would order another one for me, and that I could come back the next day to get the other one. It was when the clerk turned her computer screen around to confirm my details with me that I was horrified to see a long list of medicines and the dates of when I had bought them. Did I really want them to be able to call up this list and see that I had bought antibiotics last January for a sinus infection? Or that I had bought baby formula for my maid’s baby in March? Not really.
But if we stop and think about it, companies constantly indulge in such bargaining for our information. The most used method is that of the age-old discount. Who doesn’t like saving money on a purchase? In exchange we are usually asked to give up personal information such as our birthdate, gender, home address, e-mail address, and phone number. My pharmacy is collecting purchasing information on all of its clients and in exchange gives us a discount on medicines. But how is this information stored and protected? Who has access to it? From the look of it, any employee of my pharmacy, which is part of a local chain, could punch in my CPF number and then print out a long list of all of my purchases since 2009!
This illustrates a very interesting shift in capitalism in which more than just money is needed to get full benefits out of the trading system. Businesses are not just asking us to give up personal information to get discounts, but they sometimes try to influence our behavior. Recently a Brazilian friend asked me if I wouldn’t like to attend a free concert near the National Museum here in Brasilia. I said sure, not knowing that in order to get the supposedly “free” ticket I had to register online, giving them my CPF number and home address, and then I had to take one broken electronic item that I happened to have laying around at home to specially designated collection centers in order to get my ticket. In other words, they were trying to get the concertgoers to be “green” and recycle their electronic trash instead of just throwing it out. They may have had a noble intention but for me it was too complicated, and I wasn’t desperate enough for a free ticket to jump through so many hoops!
I don’t think my pharmacy, or any business for that matter, should be allowed to demand that customers hand over their personal information in order to get a discount. That is anti-democratic and unfair. A legal loophole should exist for those of us, who like me, refuse to allow businesses collect our buying information in order for us to be able to get discounts. We want our discounts but without giving up our privacy.
-- The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.