Consumer deals come at price of personal data

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Buying flights for your next vacation on your iPhone may cost more than doing the same search on an Android device, according to some privacy analysts.

Price manipulation based on search history or device is just one consequence of our lives, both online and off, becoming more public.


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While privacy laws fail to keep pace with technology, the average American has to contend with security cameras, store loyalty cards and cellphone tracking.

Online browsing history could come at a cost. Those who have been shopping on the Neiman Marcus site are more likely to see higher-priced hotels prominently advertised than those searching for bargains at Wal-Mart, said Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s project on consumer privacy.

“Every time you log on to a website to make a major purchase, such as a vacation-planning site or something like that, the website is automatically clearing your computer to find out what else you’ve been doing,” he said. “Going to sites linked to high-end retail brands or going to websites that focus on discount stores tells the vacation site how much you’re willing to spend.”

Visiting a competitor’s site first also may influence prices because shopping around can indicate that you are looking for a good deal, said Allan Friedman, a research scientist at the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University.

“If nothing in their history looks like they’re cost-conscious, I can charge them a higher price,” Mr. Friedman said. “This tends not to be very popular when you charge someone a higher price. When you charge someone a lower price, we call that a discount.”

Mr. Friedman said price discrimination happens all the time. When someone books an airline flight leaving Monday morning and returning Friday, for example, the site assumes the passenger is traveling for business and can afford a higher fare, he said.

No federal laws are on the books to prevent this practice, Mr. Brookman said, and companies don’t need to reveal what information they are collecting or how they are using it.

“As long as they’re not lying about what they’re doing, there aren’t a lot of limitations,” he said.

After arriving at the airport, the average traveler could be on camera a dozen times, Mr. Friedman said. This is little cause for concern, but a lack of transparency about how that video is used and how long it is stored could raise privacy questions — especially when facial recognition software improves.

“It’s the notion that a system can automatically recognize you,” Mr. Friedman said. “It goes from recording an image to being able to track someone across spaces.”

Another vulnerability may be hidden in your wallet: those loyalty cards that provide retail discounts. Stores collect a detailed dossier about a shopper’s spending habits, frequently visited stores and address. This information can be sold, shared or traded with advertising companies or data brokers, said Jennifer Urban, an assistant professor at Berkeley Law.

“Once it’s collected, it often enters into a vast network of buying and selling and sharing of data that is largely invisible to most people,” she said.

Sometimes part of the data, such as a shopper’s name, is stripped from identifying information. Even then, though, it’s easy to identify the person because of the amount of information collected, Ms. Urban said.

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