The digital data mining scam is infesting schools, grocery stores, and everything else. In some cases, it can be useful or at least kind of neat. In most cases, it is not.

The cashier at the grocery store does not need your address to ring up your groceries. Jiffy Lube does not need your address, phone number, and date of birth to change your oil. The librarian at a university does not need to enter your phone number into a computer every time they permit you to use a study room on the campus that you pay many thousands of dollars to attend. Actually, it’s weird that they are asking us for it.

It should not be weird for a person to politely decline to disclose private information about themselves to strangers in order to complete a routine task that is essential to living in society. Rather, I will restate: it is weird to be the stranger or computer system asking or demanding personal information. And if that’s somehow controversial, then there may be a problem around what the concept of  ‘consent’ means.

I’ve started pushing back against the social pressure to casually disclose personal information to a shady and limitless network of stranger. My obstinance is always conducted with the utmost respect for the person on the other side of the register. It is a casual endeavor that seldom generates social friction, in large part because I refuse to take any of this out on the workers or make it a personal issue, instead highlighting it as a systemic problem, something novel and bizarre and kind of funny.

More often than not, workers agree with my sentiment or don’t care either way, but are under pressure by their managers to dutifully report this information to some proprietary software company no one has ever heard of. And increasingly, the ability to opt out of  is simply being programmed out of existence by the data mining companies. Plus, workers are being subjected to increasingly invasive surveillance programs on an even more extreme level than consumers, which is an issue we seek solidarity about.

Moreover, this data bazaar is a major contributor to the junk mail clogging up your mailbox and your trashcan. Worse yet, this never ending cascade of waste wrecks havoc on the environment on a massive scale.

You, the consumer, inherit all the risk, but none of the profit, for this invasive interference into your life. If that proprietary, third party database, or any of their partners, or perhaps their partners partners, or any other “qualified parties” decide to sell to anyone else, you are neither consulted or informed. If any of them are hacked then your identity is compromised, but at that point basically anyone who wants your used and abused data can probably buy it on the cheap anyway.

Here’s an example of how you can push back: most grocery stores will offer a discount program for customers, but they want you to fill out a form with a bunch of private information like your address, phone number and date of birth. If it’s busy, you can usually just tell them you’ll fill out the form later and take the discount in the meantime, since they will be trying to get the lines moving. You can also go fill out the form and just write almost nothing on it, and the clerks will usually just accept it without question (most of them aren’t paid enough to care). 

Don’t give your data up for nothing (eg: to get an oil change, in addition to the full price you are already paying). If you come across a perk you actually want to exchange some of your data for, always give the absolute minimum that they will accept. They typically ask for more than is needed to process the order, but without letting you know that, so I usually start by giving them nothing or almost nothing as my starting point for the deal, and work my up from there as I deem appropriate to disclose.

(As a fun aside, I have been known to casually encourage employees at big corporations to unionize. I don’t expect them to agree with me openly, but it doesn’t hurt to plant the seed.)

To the extent that there are consumer protection laws and public standards around the shameless beggars and extorters of your private information, they are minimal, ineffective, and unable keep up: both with the sheer amount of data, and the rate of legal and technological innovation in pursuit of this frenzied blood lust. We cannot rely on regulators to keep up or care, nor can we expect the industry to suddenly decide to respect us out of the kindness of their hearts. They will respond to market forces, when competitors begin offering services and discounts to tap into the growing market of cyberpunk civilians well-adjusted to the modern world, useful idiots no more.

No doubt, and to a large extent, damage has already been done–your identity is likely already compromised significantly. A lot of people understand this, shrug their shoulders, and say it’s too late to care. I disagree: just because they have your current phone number and address doesn’t mean you have to give them all your future ones. And what about our children, or the next generation? Now is the time to remind people that it hasn’t always been this way, nor does it always have to be.

It is up to consumers to reclaim the culture around their private information from the creepy data gluttons. I refuse to allow this wide-spread and incredibly invasive information harvesting scam to become normalized in every facet of life, without pushing back at least a little. I invite you to join me in politely declining, and having a bit of fun along the way with just how ridiculous this all has become.

1 thought on “How I stopped disclosing my private information to anyone who asked for it, and why you should too”

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