Signing away our privacy

A few weeks ago my son's '09 Toyota Tacoma truck was totaled. He was waiting at the lights to turn left onto a freeway onramp and, when the lights changed, his was the second vehicle to make the turn. Unfortunately, a driver coming from the opposite direction in a VW Bug, seconds after the lights changed, completely failed to stop.

This grade-A numbnut ran the red light (the cop at the scene said he thought she had been texting) and, missing the other vehicle turning across her path, hit my son's year-old Tacoma on the front passenger side wheel well. The force was so great that it bent the Tacoma's chassis about two or three degrees. Voilà! A complete write-off (so was the Bug). Luckily, no one was hurt and the numbnut admitted complete liability.

For once, the whole insurance thing worked out and, miracle of miracles, we got back pretty much what we'd spent on the truck in the first place, a testament to how well Tacomas hold their value (and props to Mercury Insurance for making the claim process amazingly smooth and quick). So, it was time to go truck shopping.

My son decided to go for the same vehicle and we got a good deal on an '11 model (priced pretty close to what we'd got from the insurance).

If you haven't purchased a vehicle recently, when you do you'll be amazed at the process. The traditional excessively long forms have been joined each year by more and more paperwork that has become progressively more arcanely bureaucratic.

This time I noticed two new forms: A "Translated Contract Acknowledgement" (this may be unique to California), which has the buyer confirm if he received a completely filled-in contract in another language before they signed the English version, and a "Privacy Notice".

It was the Privacy Notice that caught my attention. After explaining what private information they might collect from me, the form then enumerated the ways that they might disclose this information. These ways included "to marketing service providers and joint marketing partners" and "with non-affiliated third parties."

Let me clarify and condense these options: What this amounts to is they can share my information with pretty much anyone they please. Anyone at all. Apparently the corporate overlords don't see anything wrong with this situation while I, au contraire, did and do. I crossed out both and printed in capitals underneath "ABSOLUTELY NOT!"

Not surprisingly this evoked some consternation from the salespeople (the salespeople at Ventura Toyota were perhaps the nicest car salespeople I have ever dealt with and completely failed to annoy me; something that has always been my experience at car dealerships).

The problem I have with such overly-broad permissions is not that I think they will use and abuse my private information (in fact, given how sloppily most small companies are at using customer data, I'd be surprised if they could find my private information six months from now), but rather, that I would be giving them the right to do so.

The sales guys said that no one had ever crossed out the terms in the last few months they had used the form. I found this amazing, but I guess most people either don't read what they are asked to sign or don't understand the consequences if they do.

The problem is that pretty much every commercial entity out there is trying to degrade your privacy. It's usually not because they have some kind of nefarious intentions, but rather, they do it just because they can. They ask for everything they can and the permission to use it in any way they want because it is obviously easier than specifying and asking for what they really need.

So, the next time you go to buy anything, anything at all, make sure you read any privacy notice carefully and understand just how your private information might be used, because once you let the privacy genie out of the bottle, there's no getting it back in there.

Don't tell anyone that Gibbs is in Ventura, Calif. Your private thoughts to backspin@gibbs.com.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

This story, "Signing away our privacy" was originally published by Network World.

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