As they scrambled recently to trace the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds around the country, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention successfully used a new tool for the first time - the shopper cards that millions of Americans swipe every time they buy groceries.
With permission from the patients, investigators followed the trail of grocery purchases to a Rhode Island company that makes salami, then zeroed in on the pepper used to season the meat.
Never before had the CDC successfully mined the mountain of data that supermarket chains compile.
Of course it does raise some privacy issues
Longtime shopper-card critic Katherine Albrecht, director of a group called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, said she worries that the practice could lead to a switch from a voluntary system to mandatory use of such cards.
"That sends chills down my spine," she said.
I've never been all that paranoid about the privacy aspect of the store cards - I just hate having to carry around ten or twenty cards on the off chance I might stop in to buy something. But I can see how the information could be abused. Imagine if your health insurance company started looking over your buying habits, jacking your rates if they saw too many bags of cheesy poofs.
Of course our expectation of privacy may be changing. And it is no longer just "Big Brother" from 1984 that we need to worry about - we are doing it to ourselves. We are broadcasting so much information voluntarily through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like. There are apps that use the GPS in your phone to update folks on your whereabouts at all times that folks are paying to have. "Over the last few years the consensus about privacy on the Internet seems to have changed a lot. A few years ago, people were still hesitant about using their real names online, but nowadays people are comfortable sharing their exact location with the whole world."
To raise awareness of the dangers of this voluntary broadcasting, some Dutch folks launched a website called PleaseRobMe.com. For a while it was publishing Twitter posts from random users like "I'm enjoying a drink at Murphy's Pub" or "heading out of town for the weekend" to point out how that information can be abused, and how little we think about posting it. The response was understandably huge and mixed, and they are no longer broadcasting tweets. "We're not showing the Twitter messages anymore, as they no longer add anything. If you don't want your information to show up everywhere, don't over-share ;-)"
I avoid mentioning out of town trips, etc. until I get back for this very reason. But in this over-broadcasting era we live in, it doesn't hurt to get a reminder once in a while to think before posting.