Privacy–Protecting it in our Web World

The current controversy over Safeway’s scanning of licenses for all alcohol purchases in Rohnert Park and Petaluma will resolve itself one way or the other.

For the moment, I would like to turn to some of the larger questions it has raised in my mind. I will come back to Safeway at the end of this article.

For Better or Worse…The web is with us

Most people (including our household) have histories and data stored in an almost infinite number of data bases and computers. Frankly, it is unavoidable, unless you are living in a cave…

  • We shop online
  • We pay bills online
  • We e-mail
  • We blog
  • We Facebook
  • We can even pay our taxes online
  • We give out our e-mail addresses to stores, retailers, banks, and financial institutions
  • We use GPS

Even for those who elect to live in a cave, there is a good chance that Google has taken a picture of the entrance and posted its location on the Internet.

Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems most likely described the situation best when he said, “You have no privacy. Get over it.”  The simple fact is that records have been generated by us or kept on us for a very long time. 

What is different now is the ability to pull it together and distribute it digitally around the world in mere seconds.  Therefore, what is critical is the management and protection of that information so that it is not used in a harmful or criminal manner. That, of course, requires legislation that keeps up with the technology and enforcement of laws regulating the use and distribution of information. On this front, I believe we are way behind the curve.

It is a cliché, but the “Computer Web” is clearly a two-edged sword. For example, GPS is a wonderful tool, particularly when emergency services personnel are trying to reach you.  If your car or cell phone has GPS, they know where you are and can get to you quickly.  On the other hand…remember, they know where you are…

How to Cope…Living on the Web

There are a few things an individual can do to reduce the risk of fraud or identity theft.

  • Regularly review all bills and bank statements for unauthorized charges
  • Carefully review credit card or debit card statements to make sure that someone has not submitted unauthorized charges. Also make sure that automatic charges have ended if, in fact, you have cancelled the service or product.
  • When paying a bill in a restaurant with a credit card or a debit card, make sure that your card is returned to you.  In a busy restaurant, it is possible for the server to mix up the cards.
  • Consider not giving out personal information and your e-mail address to secure future coupon and discount offers from a retailer. It has been our experience that all we receive are offers for things we don’t purchase, not to mention the daily e-mail ads. If you still wish to do so, consider setting up a separate web e-mail to receive the advertizing/promotional e-mail.  I think you will find that you will rarely open it.
  • To better identify potential credit card fraud problems, use one card for online transactions and a separate card for “real world” transactions.
  • If you use public Wi-Fi or public computers, do not connect with your bank, credit card, or brokerage accounts.
  • If you receive a call from someone purporting to be from your credit card company, bank, or brokerage to report a problem on your account, do not give out information without first verifying they are in fact who they say they are. A usual clue is if they start asking for account numbers, social security numbers. The best procedure is to terminate the conversation and call the company on a number that you have to verify the call.

If there is a single overall caution I could offer– be careful about giving out personal information.  Granted there are legitimate reasons and legal requirements to do so in the course of our daily lives when establishing bank accounts, financial records, etc.  However, one should question other requests for your identifying information such as street address, social security number, driver’s license number.

This brings us back to the Safeway policy of scanning a driver’s license to purchase alcoholic products…

  • While it may be permitted under California law, there is no mandate that it be done. 
  • While there are legal limitations on how the data is to be used, violations are difficult to detect and if detected, the penalties are not particularly severe. 

I said in an earlier article that I accept Safeway’s assertion that they are complying with California law. I accepted it largely because I have elected to do my shopping elsewhere.

However, in researching this issue generally, I noted that the creators of the scanning hardware and software tout its data storage and data mining ability.  One company is even pushing a scanner that not only records the data on the magnetic strip but also images both sides of the card during the scan. Let that feature spin around in your mind for a few minutes.

In closing, the Safeway system is far from foolproof.  For $20 or less, one can buy a card reader/writer and create any date they want on a magnetic data strip. I am sure that it would be a simple task for a 19 year old to adjust his or her license.  



1. First, a  twenty minute film, ” Smart Card”  which, while painting an extreme future, may give you a different perspective on today. If you view nothing else on this page, be sure and check out this film.  Links below:

2.  Information from the  California Office of Privacy Protection

3. For an industry article on the problems of scanning see Retailers Caught in the Middle on ID Checks

4. Also See Driver’s license scanning reduces fraud, but may alienate shoppers

City Hall–Gone to Seed? UPDATE!

In my earlier post on the new City Hall landscape (See City Hall–Gone to Seed?) I said: “It was not clear to me who was going to oversee the (ongoing) maintenance of the new landscape.  At the time I thought it might be a volunteer group, but I later learned that maintenance was to be the responsibility of the City of Petaluma.”

As an elaboration on this point, I received an e-mail from Jane Hamilton of Rebuilding Together Petaluma (RTP) which adds further detail. It is included here with Jane’s permission…

“Rebuilding Together Petaluma was to supply the volunteers and event management, Daily Acts was to supply the expertise, training and design input, and Petaluma Bounty was to provide expertise, design input and ongoing oversight and maintenance of the vegetable planter boxes and community garden portion,  while maintenance and completion of the grounds surrounding City Hall was to be the sole responsibility of the City of Petaluma, as is the maintenance of all of their properties. The non-profits involved did their part beautifully. Now that its spring, I am sure the City must have imminent plans to fulfill their part.”

With respect to the last sentence in Jane’s e-mail, I hope that is the case.

Petaluma’s Blight Plight!

…and by blight I am referring to graffiti, trash, and abandoned shopping carts.  Granted, there is a large problem with foreclosed homes, or soon to be foreclosed homes, in our neighborhoods; however, I make no attempt to address that issue in this article….


While the obvious graffiti has been somewhat down of late, I have noticed a resurgence of “practitioners” in certain areas around Lucchesi Park…

And of course, there is always the Weir Writing Wall on the Lynch Creek Trail…

There has been some progress on the abandoned shopping cart front now that Raley’s and Safeway have controlled their carts with electronic locking devices. I trust, however, that Safeway will not relax their diligence because they are diverting resources to scanning driver’s licenses!

But it matters not what Raley’s and Safeway do–there are still plenty of  carts from other stores roaming about our streets and neighborhoods…not to mention cavorting in our parks…

Lucchesi Park continues to be a shopping cart magnet. They should be listed as a featured attraction…

…along with other manifestations of  “trashy” behavior…

On a positive note, I can report that at least one person was thoughtful enough not to throw an empty cup on the ground…

I now close the Blight Report for March 2010. In fact, it will suffice for the balance of 2010.



City Hall–Gone to Seed?

Last November, I wholeheartedly praised the community effort to convert the turf area around City Hall to a low water landscape. See New Landscape at City Hall–post mortem thoughts 

Without a doubt, it was a major capital improvement carried out by volunteer groups working closely with the City of Petaluma.

But I also cautioned:

…the euphoria and enthusiasm (which I share) generated by the event must be tempered with the realization that the work is not done.  We are starting our third year with a “transformed” sheet mulched (residential) landscape and have no regrets.  Nevertheless, it does require monitoring, weeding and some pruning. From time to time, plants die and have to be replaced.

Going forward, the new City Hall landscape will demand the same attention, albeit on a scale larger than a residential yard. While turf maintenance and turf water demands have been eliminated, there will be maintenance of a different kind requiring different knowledge– and yes, the new landscape will require some water.

It was not clear to me who was going to oversee the maintenance of the new landscape.  At the time I thought it might be a volunteer group, but I later learned that maintenance was to be the responsibility of the City of Petaluma.

To get to the point quickly–The project succeeded. The maintenance has not. In fact, to date, it has been nonexistent…

They may have eliminated the need and expense of lawn maintenance, but the new landscape, while it does not need lawn mowers and chemical sprayers, requires maintenance skill sets of a different kind. 

In short, it needs the regular supervision and maintenance by someone who knows how to care for a variety of plantings and who knows…

  • When to irrigate and in what amounts
  • When to prune
  • What to prune
  • When to harvest the vegetables
  • When to replenish the mulch layers
  • When to replace the dead plants

On March 17, 2010 I toured the new City Hall landscape with camera to document the current state of the landscape since its completion in October 2009. It was not a pretty sight. For a complete photo album, see City Hall Landscaping…A Neglected Project?

Normally I like to offer suggestions, but in this case I am not able to do so. I seriously doubt there are any funds in the City budget to secure this service.  That leaves volunteers as an alternative.  But I really think it is unfair, not to mention unrealistic, to expect volunteers with the required skills to take on the regular management of a landscape of this size.

In the meantime, the weeds continue to spread.