Sunday, May 22, 2011

When Personal Ceased to be Private

Hey, you.

Yeah, you, perfect stranger. Let me ask you something.

Can I get your phone number? No? How about your email address? Why not? It's for demographic purposes. Hey, why are you walking away?

Is it just me, or is giving your phone number or email address to a total stranger NOT something you do on a regular basis? At a bar, on the bus, even at church--under what circumstances are you willing to part with these particulars? Doesn't someone usually have to earn your trust (or at least your acquaintance) to gain access to them? For me, the answer is yes, they do. And yet, with increasing frequency, I have lately been asked at retail stores to provide both these personal identifiers upon checking out--as though this is no big deal.

What makes this so unbelievable to me is that all around us are are stories of stolen identities, hacked accounts, fraudulent credit card charges. This is the golden age of identity theft. Who doesn't know someone who has been touched by this? You can even hire companies now whose sole purpose is to protect you against this crime. As someone who's seen the devastating effects of identity theft firsthand, I'm not likely to verbally give out much more than my name within earshot of total strangers. But, against all reason, retail stores expect their customers to blithely spew out their personal information like candy out of a broken pinata.

It's become so pervasive and obnoxious that I find myself driving away from these encounters fantasizing about the preposterous information I'm going to give next time--the fake addresses, spelled out one letter at a time. "My email address? Sure, it's You did ask me for my private information, right?" Or " Can you read it back to me to make sure you got it?" I know it's not really the employee's fault for asking. I'm sure they're trained to do so and probably even policed by their managers about how many they can get in a shift. But I have had the occasional run-in with an employee who seems genuinely affronted that I won't supply my private information upon request. Like this exchange I recently had at Pier 1:

"Can I get your phone number?"

"I don't give it out."

"Oh, but it's just for demographic purposes."

"Sorry, I don't give it out."

Look of confusion and offense.

"Can I get your email address?"

(Laughter) "No, I don't give that out either."

"Oh, but it's just so you can receive coupons."

"I'm not interested, thanks."

"Okay. Would you like to sign up for our Rewards Card and receive X percent off your purchase today?"

Primal scream; I climb over the counter and throttle salesperson.

Seriously, though, when did personal information cease to be private? Is this the path our culture of exposure leads to? If people I've met once or twice can see my family's vacation photos on Facebook, maybe the amiable stranger behind the counter at Bed, Bath, and Beyond is entitled to give me a call on his next break. But last I checked with my wrong-o-meter, that's just not okay.

So what do you think? Is it reasonable for a retail chain to expect people to issue forth their phone number upon request? Or is it totally presumptuous and an invasion of privacy to even ask? For now, I'm just going to be the broken record that keeps saying no.

And if they have a problem with that, they can reach me at

1 comment:

  1. It's a different age. In the past, it wasn't that big of a deal to ask for your home address. In fact, that's how phone calls were routed to you. Unless you asked otherwise, your phone number and address were recorded and given away to everyone for free. We called this the White Pages. I mean, in this day and age, the only real difference is that you feel like this information is private. Information has always been opt out, we just never really thought of it that way.

    I guess it's now easier to associate a face with a name these days, thanks to Facebook, but is it really an issue? The worst they can do with your e-mail and phone number is annoy you, and that's what they used to do back in the day with a phone book and a group of people calling every name in it. At least now we have spam filters and caller ID to block them.