Last week marked the original official deadline for the Digital Television Transition, after which analog television broadcasts would be terminated. (The official deadline was recently extended to June 12, 2009.) To ease the transition, the US government launched the TV Converter Box Coupon Program, which “allows U.S. households to obtain up to two coupons, each worth $40, that can be applied toward the cost of eligible converter boxes.” (TV converter coupon program site)
The coupon is similar to a credit card, with a serial number and expiration date printed on the front (as well as a nifty hologram that reads “Security”). It also has a magnetic stripe. Curious, I borrowed a coupon and swiped it through my trusty mag-stripe reader. The output was as follows (name/number have been changed for privacy):
Consumers are clearly not aware that their names are encoded on the cards. Although National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) documents refer to “identifying serial numbers,” (NTIA 2006) there is no mention of the fact that names themselves are encoded on the cards. Since the name is not printed on the face of the card itself, there’s no way for recipients to tell it is there without special card-reader equipment.
As a result, over 24 million Americans have now unknowingly submitted their names into the tracking systems of nationwide corporate retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy. “There are federal privacy laws that say what the government can do with your information, but once that information is given to private industry, it’s theirs,” commented senior security consultant Jonathan Ham.
What’s more, the NTIA itself tracks the location, date and time of each purchase. Retailers are required to “provide NTIA electronically with redemption information and payment receipts related to coupons used in the purchase of converter boxes, specifically tracking each serialized coupon by number with a corresponding [certified converter box] purchase.” (NTIA retailer site.) Each week, the NTIA publishes statistics indicating the number of cards used in each zip code.
Consumers are not explicitly informed of the coupon tracking on the TV Converter Coupon Program web site or application. Buried in the NTIA’s web site is the statement that “to keep track of the number of coupons issued, used and redeemed, as well as to minimize fraud and counterfeiting, NTIA intends to place identifying serial numbers on the coupons.” (NTIA 2006)
I went to Best Buy to get a retailer’s perspective on the TV Converter Coupon Program. Like most retailers, Best Buy likes to track their customers. With cash or check, this is difficult, but with credit cards and similar systems (such as the DTV coupons), customers can be automatically added to their database.
Rob Hooper, the helpful manager on duty, explained, “[The DTV coupon] would probably have their name, a number, and they probably have to put in their phone number for us to ring out the remainder of the transaction. As soon as that number gets rung through a Best Buy retailer or a Wal-Mart retailer or anywhere else, [NTIA can] probably break it down underneath the ID of the retailer, and then also the ID of the individual who applied for that particular card number. Not only do they have demographics, they also have geographics– where each card is used.”
In other words, the government receives detailed information about precisely where and when each card is used, and each card is explicitly linked to a name. What’s more, since the names are stored on the coupon’s magnetic stripe itself, the retailer also receives and can store personal information about the consumer. The consumer may never even be aware that his or her name has been given to the retailer.
My mother, who applied for the program by phone, was shocked to learn that her name was encoded on the card and her purchases were tracked. “The government should have made me aware of the information they would be collecting about me if I used the card,” she said. “They’re taking away my freedom. If they decide they need to collect information, they should do so with the people they are collecting the information from volunteering to give it, not being forced.”
Presumably the names encoded on the coupon’s magnetic stripe can be used to prevent fraud, but in practice this has not been occurring. Even if the name on the coupon doesn’t match the consumer, retailers still accept the coupons.
“We generally don’t check IDs against the card,” said Rob. “If someone’s out there stealing digital converter box cards and they’re just hoarding boxes of those cards, that’s not on the top priority list for Best Buy’s loss prevention.”
“We haven’t really seen too much fraud whatsoever with these coupon cards,” he added. “It would be a really interesting thing to try to steal $40 converter box cards, because you’re basically getting paid off in technology that will be antiquated.”
Millions of Americans using the DTV converter coupons have unknowingly had their shopping habits tracked and names given to third parties such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart. What is the value of our privacy? Is watered-down “fraud protection” really worth giving away millions of American’s names to retailers? Would my mother really want her shopping habits recorded in an obscure government database, even to save $40?
“I like to shop for a product without Big Brother watching over me,” said Mom.
|PGP-signed text: 2009-02-23 (current)|