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The value in personal information

Most of the broadcast news over the past few nights has understandably focused on Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath. However, it was another story that caught my attention because of the use of personal information by law enforcement. It reminded me that with all the privacy concerns we struggle over that there are times when the collection and use of personal information has a redeeming social (or consumer) value.

Personal information used to find and return a baby

A Massachusetts mother who does not have custody of her child took the baby from the legal custodian. The mother was caught a day or so later in a southern state by police tracking her location through her cell phone (read story here). My wife’s first reaction was along the lines of “oh good, a happy ending”. My first thought was “did they have a warrant to track the cell phone?” As always, my wife quickly brought me back to reality.

My wife’s point was that here is a positive example of the use of personal information. For whatever reason the baby was originally taken from the mother, through the use of location information the baby was now back with her legal custodian. Recognizing that there will always be discussions about where to draw the line in using personal information in this manner, there was strong social value in the use of personal information, location in this case, used to resolve this situation.

 Something less controversial…what color is that paint?

Soon after that story a commercial for Lowe’s was shown.  Lowe’s is now touting a service that tracks what you have purchased that allows you to look up, for example, the color paint you bought a few years ago so you can cover up your children’s “artwork”.

Major retails all collect this information about purchases. You could usually get access to the information through an affinity program, but Lowe’s is now recognizing a consumer value by marketing the availability of this information to the consumer. In the narrowly defined case of this program there are no privacy issues here as the information continues to be shared only between the Lowe’s and the original purchaser.

As I look at my walls I see some areas that can use some touch up. Right now this sounds like a great use of personal information, in this case transaction history.

Sometimes you just need to take a step back

So what do these to things have in common? On the surface simply my immediate reaction to look at these from a privacy perspective before seeking any value…after all, that’s my job. However, as my wife reminded me, sometimes you just need to take a step back and look at the whole picture especially when you form policy and provide notice.

“Yes dear.”