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


5 thoughts on “Privacy–Protecting it in our Web World

  1. Thanks Frank, read the article in the press yesterday. I also agree with you. I don’t feel comfortable handing my licence to a safeway cashier when it’s clearly visable that I’m well over 21. I will be purchasing wine, beer, etc elsewhere. I’m not a drinker but for our barbacue’s during the summer, I usually do shop at safeway. I especially appreciate your good tips on tracking our bank statements and visa charges. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK.

  2. Pingback: Privacy–Protecting it in our Web World « The Petaluma Spectator | Reader Card Drivers Center

  3. Thanks for the great article Frank. Lots of good tips. I’d add one to your list of good things to do to protect your ID. If you have a WiFi router in your home be sure to lock it…especially if you’re in an apmt. As you know, there are those who not only log onto free/unlocked sites but some can hack your computer(s) via your WiFi.

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