Is there a privacy toll on consumers?

We know that complying with regs about privacy can be costly to record keepers, including but not limited to health care providers. For example, it costs the school something to handle privacy and confidentiality responsibilities, on top of what it costs to maintain student and personnel records and other data.

But we are also paying a privacy premium to phone companies and Internet service providers and retailers. Part of that is to cover their costs of dealing with spam—warding it off, and not exposing you to new onslaughts from fresh batches of e-dresses. Part of the costs also have to do with preventing identity theft through acquisition of data concerning consumers. Such costs are passed on to consumers.

There’s another aspect to this “toll on consumers.” Those who sell to us like to reward us. That is because those merchants and service providers are so grateful, and benevolent. They like us, they really LIKE us! Because we are such good, loyal customers, and obviously likable too, they want to do something to show us they care.

Or maybe their reasons are less about warmth, and more about marketing more aggressively.

At the health-beauty-etc. store we can register for rewards programs, and are given special cards identifying us as members. We get special deals. Some advertising is targeted to us.

Same thing happens at many other stores, from hardwares to home improvement stores to grocery stores. I’ll have you know I am a preferred customer of several office supply chains. One recently reclassified me from Preferred to Preferred Silver. I assume this is a demotion. I dread receiving a notice that I have become Preferred Bronze, and envy those elite customers who have met the volume goals that would transmute their preferability metal to gold or platinum.

I order office supplies online. Having registered as a customer at each vendor’s online outlet, I am not amazed that each such vendor tracks my purchases with ease. This does not require spycraft, but the good business sense that causes a good bartender to remember each “regular’s” favorite tipple, or a good waitperson to remember you like Splenda with your coffee, and that’s regular coffee.

So I am enrolled in a kind of privileged shopper program at the local outlet of the prescription, health, beauty and sundries chain. I find extra super specials on the shelves as I stroll through. I get to buy those, because I am preferred by this chain. Other customers, who are merely accepted, and maybe even the ones who are barely tolerated, may buy those items, of course, but at regular price.

I also get e-mails telling me about the things I can buy as a favored customer, enrolled in the special program. My special qualities may wear off, as to those products, or the specialness of the pricing may wear off while I continue to hold my special status, unless I buy those items soon or while present stock lasts.

Critics of such card programs call them “registration and monitoring programs.” Critics say the registered customers are paying the regular price, for the most part, while the customers who decline to register for and use the programs pay extra.

The critics also point out that the programs, designed to help classify and track and  market to customers in a better targeted way, involve customers’ willingness to provide more personally differentiated information, more identity stuff. Phone number and address and e-mail, for instance.

They couldn’t get your credit card number, could they? Um, what do you think? Yes, but they wouldn’t, would they? Or at least they would not “lose” it or share it or sell it, would they? We can only hope.

But consider this. The people who pay those higher prices for rejecting frequent shopper programs are making a financial sacrifice for privacy. Are we okay with a privacy surcharge?

Loss of privacy, or the distribution of our mailing information, sets us up for junk mail. The opt-out programs are very poorly operated, and the junk mail law is lacking in dentition.

Sure, you can throw junk mail away. But you have to sort through it. Then it has to be discarded (and some of us take the address and other data-rich parts off first). Then it gets carted to the landfill in gross quantities, or recycled at considerable cost and little profit.

Consider that the average mail patron receives several pieces of junk mail in every mail delivery, and a household gets 1,000 or more every year. It adds up to about 4.5 million tons in the U.S., annually. To produce that paper it takes around 100 million trees. About half of the junk mail is never opened.

Do you have enough privacy?  E-mail me and let me know. (But then I’ll have your e-dress, won’t I!) Or you could call me—(but unless you block it, I’ll see your number).  Or drop me a card. (You might not want to use stationery or an address label, though.)