Data Mining and the Apple Store.

When I was in college, all CS majors had to take a course about the impact of computers on society. I’m not sure of the title anymore, I think it was something pithy like “Computers and Society.” Since it wasn’t an actual programming or algorithms class, I wasn’t very interested, but it’s one of the courses that has stuck with me to this day. I still recall animated discussions about the sort of information which computer systems hold about each of us, and the sort of information harvesting that results. We all live with this reality today, especially with the mainstreaming of the Internet. How many of us would want a list of every Google search we’ve ever run posted for all the world to read? What sort of information do companies glean about us by tracking our credit card transactions. To this day, I dislike “membership” discount programs, such as the “bonus cards” most supermarkets require in order to qualify for sale prices. What a perfect way to monitor everything your customers purchase, and to link every purchase to a specific customer.

All this was brought home to me again today. I had to visit the Apple store because my daughter’s MacBook has developed cracks in the case where the top lid meets the lower lid. After meeting with a genius (“No problem, we can fix that”), I decided to pick up a Belkin iPhone adapter- the one that lets you use any headphones with the specially recessed headphone port on the iPhone. The Apple store I was visiting is the older design- they still had a separate Genius Bar and Register area. While waiting in line to check out, a store associate wielding one of Apple’s hand-held checkout devices offered to complete my sale, if I was paying by credit card. Rather than wait, I agreed. When he asked me if I wanted a receipt by email or a hard copy, however, I opted for the hard copy. As quick as the handheld devices are, I didn’t want to wait while he picked out my email address on his on-screen keypad using the stylus. He swiped my credit card, retrieved my receipt (and a bag) from behind the Genius Bar, and I was on my way.

So imaging my surprise about an hour later when, upon checking my email on my iPhone, I discovered that the Apple store had emailed me my receipt. The only possible explanation is that they had saved my credit card info and the associated email address from a prior purchase (at another Apple store, no less) and used that information to send me a receipt anyway. It’s a good thing that my purchase wasn’t a gift, and that I don’t share an email account with anyone. And before you ask, they did not get my email address from my earlier Genius Bar visit. Beside dealing with different associates, I never gave out my email address- the MacBook in question is registered to my daughter.

Now, I understand that emailing a receipt is a convenience- both when checking out, when it allows staff to ring you up from anywhere in the store, no need for a printer, and for the customer, as a lost receipt is replaced by a quick trip to your email client. I also know that when I make a purchase via credit card, the merchant may store that number with my order; Internet retailers commonly keep it on file for later purchases. It still bothers me that a retailer would use my credit card info from this purchase as a lookup key to find earlier purchases, and then use that information to contact me with content I had already declined.

There’s no escaping this kind of data mining today, but it still bugs me. I think I may start carrying (and using) more cash.

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