In a pre-internet era, I worried mostly about losing privacy — and therefore losing face — locally; now, individuals lose privacy and face nationally.
In 1986, I attended a lecture by Arthur R. Miller. The lawyers among you might recognize him as one of the two authors of Wright and Miller’s Federal Practice and Procedure. For the non-lawyers among you, Federal Practice and Procedure is (or at least was then) the single most important treatise on practicing law in the federal court system.
(As an aside, Charles Alan Wright, the other author, taught at my law school, although I was not in his Civil Procedure class. Rumor had it that he was an indifferent teacher, but that he kept students entertained with his photographic memory, which included being able to cite with perfect accuracy to every single page in his multi-volume treatise.)
I’m digressing a bit, but my point is that this was a lecture from one of the finest judicial minds in the country. The topic Miller chose to address was privacy. The obvious things to raise in the lecture would have been seminal Supreme Court cases about privacy, such as Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), which held that states had no business interfering in a married couple’s contraception decisions because of the inherent constitutional right to privacy; Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972), which extended the Griswold privacy right to unmarried couples; or Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), which held that the 4th Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures applied to places in which someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy. I don’t remember Miller addressing any of those subjects.
Instead, what I remember him talking about was the fact that the computer age (which was over 30 years less developed then than it is now) meant that corporations were compiling databases about consumers through customer loyalty cards and general credit card use. Corporations, he said, learned our every purchase and this, he argued, was itself a violation of our privacy. I don’t think Miller could have been at all surprised to read in 2012 that Target figured out that a teen girl was pregnant before her father did:
Every time you go shopping, you share intimate details about your consumption patterns with retailers. And many of those retailers are studying those details to figure out what you like, what you need, and which coupons are most likely to make you happy. Target, for example, has figured out how to data-mine its way into your womb, to figure out whether you have a baby on the way long before you need to start buying diapers.
I won’t quote from the article at length, but if you missed it the first time around, back in 2012, I suggest you check it out now just to see how deeply corporations can pry into our lives to try to figure out our shopping needs. [Read more…]