Thursday, February 16, 2012

Beware anyone bearing gifts

Be careful who you open your door to.

When I watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” I learned that a vampire could not gain entrance to your home unless you invited him or her — or is it “it” — in.

Years before that, I learned a similar lesson. I was nine months pregnant, had just quit my job and was waiting for my daughter to be born. What I didn’t realize at the time was that she was going to be three weeks late.

I was restless and unused to holding still, so I found a temporary job inputting data. I worked in a small, hot office in Londonderry NH for a man who was enormously obese, unkempt and crude. Mostly, he wasn’t there. The worst part was the cheap office chair I had to sit in — really bad when you’re expecting any day.

This man collected, processed and sold people’s personal data. This was in 1973. Londonderry was a thriving bedroom community full of Boston-bound commuters (I was one myself). New housing developments were eating up all the apple orchards. Just a few months later, however, the economy ground to a hard stop.

So here’s what happened in June 1973:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Welcome Wagon.

Come on in!

Anticipating free coupons for discount meals and a cheap basket of worthless trinkets, newcomers opened their doors and invited Welcome Wagon representatives in for coffee. Over and over again.

People did not know what was really going on. Welcome Wagon was, perhaps still is, a spy network cloaked as an organization of upbeat greeters working to give you info about your new community.

The affable Welcome Wagon visitors note everything they can find out about you — the kind of car you drive, the estimated value of your home, the type of furniture you own, your estimated annual income, the number of kids you have, where you work, years left on your car payment. The more talkative you are, the more successful they are.

They then input this info into a database and sell it to anyone who wants to pay for it. You get a Happy Meal at half price or a free screening at the local dentist’s office and any company in the world willing to pay for it gets your entire personal profile. I know this because I typed in hundreds and hundreds of Welcome Wagon forms that were filled out, no doubt, in the secrecy of the car after the friendly visit and the coupon for a free Coke at McDonald’s.

Something like this is happening on a much larger and more insidious level. You don’t have to own a home to be violated. All you need is a smart phone and a few of the wrong apps.

Certain apps (up to 11 percent of the free apps) that you use on your phones collect the information from your address book without your knowledge and store it in their own databases. Until today I had no idea that this was happening.

Here is a link to the NY Times article explaining how people’s address books are taken without their knowledge:

Do you use Hipster, Locale, Uber, Yelp, Taxi Magic, Picplz, Scrabble and Waze, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, Gowalla or Foodspotting? If so, contact them to find out what they are doing with your address book.

I store a lot of my and my friends’ personal info in my address book. While I doubt that Instagram cares what medications I’m allergic to, when my best friend was born or the name of my neighbor’s dog, the idea that this information could be transmitted when I decide to play Scrabble at midnight because I can’t sleep is enough to cause permanent insomnia.

The rule of thumb in journalism is: nothing is private once it’s written down. This rule is true way beyond the reporter’s notebook.

When you accept an app into your iPhone or iPad, it’s the same thing. Once you select “install app,” beware what you are letting in. It could be the Cookie Monster or it could be Welcome Wagon, selling your info to a clothing catalog, or it could be Yelp waiting to glom on to your most treasured of all possessions — your personal contacts.

1 comment:

  1. had no idea. my mom and dad met their soon to be best friends in lancaster, PA through the woman's welcome wagon introduction.