So, That’s Why Stores Ask For Your Zip Code …

With all of us on, I guess one could say, extra alert after the recent NSA revelations, a couple of stories seem to stand out more than they certainly would have just a few weeks ago. Many people in the political arena are arguing that none of the recent revelations are actually news and they may be right. But, let’s put aside the Washington wrangling for now. I think that it is fair to say that, if nothing else, the issue has been shoved to the forefront of many people’s minds. A company called DuckDuckGo has seen their traffic spike in the wake of all of this recent publicity. With the NSA Prism program highlighting the fact that Google, Facebook, Apple etc. are being forced (or we assume are being forced) to give up massive wads of data, DuckDuckGo seems to be in the right place at the right time. The company has a search engine that boasts flatly that “Google tracks you. We don’t.” And as that implies, even if the government came knocking on their door tomorrow, they have nothing to give:

“By not storing any useful information, DuckDuckGo simply isn’t useful to these surveillance programs,” chief executive Gabriel Weinberg told Silicon Angle last week. “We literally do not store personally identifiable user data, so if the NSA were to get a hold of all our data, it would not be useful to them since it is all truly anonymous.”

Well, that certainly sounds appealing right about now. While, I would guess (and hope?) that most people don’t have that much to hide regarding their searches, it is still unsettling that it will be stored forever (or at least a good long time). I don’t think that the average person would like their search engine history (and website visits) to reflect their legacy, so to speak. Forget nefarious activity, who of us hasn’t occasionally looked up the spelling or definition of a word that even a dunce would know (just double checking, I swear!), or succumbed to a headline and clicked on the latest news of some idiot celebrity (not Kim Kardashian– and definitely not me!) or, oh well … you get the idea. Who would ever want their entire record on this planet to be reduced to their web surfing activities. And really, I am just touching on the frivolous stuff. But in reality a look at your online history could instantly tell someone a lot about you; your bank accounts, where you shopped and what you bought, your political leanings, your income, even your taxes. And while many of us have probably given this a passing thought or two, there was always a sort of  comfort in that nobody cared and anyway, after the information was sold to some advertising firm or something why would anyone hold onto it. I think that many people probably still feel that way in general, but this NSA has certainly given new attention to the issue. I would bet that companies that promise anonymity such as DuckDuckGo will thrive for quite some time into the foreseeable future.

Which brings us to another, somewhat related issue. What in the world are the companies doing with all of this information and how do they get it? Sure, Google and other giant companies have loads and loads of data on you, but what about other, less internet heavy corporations? Well, it turns out that they can get more information on you, and in a simpler fashion than you may think. One way that stores do it is by asking for your zip code. If you are anything like me, you may have wondered why, and been vaguely uneasy about giving it out. At the same time, it seems like a harmless request in that lots of people live in the same zip code. It turns out though, that it is not harmless at all and the reason they ask for it is precisely because it does sound harmless. What exactly are they doing with that information? Take a look:

How does this work? In one of their brochures, direct marketing services company Harte-Hanks describes the GeoCapture service they offer retail businesses as follows: “Users simply capture name from the credit card swipe and request a customer’s ZIP code during the transaction. GeoCapture matches the collected information to a comprehensive consumer database to return an address.” In a promotional brochure, they claim accuracy rates as high as 100%.

Well, you can’t top 100% now can you? Interesting, if nothing else and by the way, what other stuff is this GeoCapture company doing with that data? I guess that we all knew, in the back of our minds at least, that it pays to be careful online. Identity theft is a real problem after all. It’s always seemed so complicated though, to turn your computer into an anonymous device, to the point of needing to have hacker level computer skills. And even they often get tracked eventually. If it does become important enough to people, I am sure that more and more companies like DuckDuckGo will emerge and make it easier than ever to privately search for the stories of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills (again — not me!).