Is Watching “Spying”?

by on December 23, 2010 · 4 comments

I was struck by the absurd title of a New York Post story from yesterday: Is Your Restaurant Spying on You? Some restaurants are—shocker—making note of your preferences and your qualities as a customer, for good or bad. That’s “spying”?

Of course, headlines are meant to catch attention. The story illustrates a phenomenon that will continue to proliferate, and that will probably continue to raise hackles, classed as “spying”, “privacy invasion”, “dossier building”, and such. People and businesses are more able to capture information about each other than they were before. (It is a two-way street. We consumers know more about businesses, and businesses know more about us.)

That’s a big change from the recent past. Over the past century or so, people got more mobile and thus less amenable to consistent observation—which means less amenable to being affixed with a reputation. Now information systems are catching up. What kind of person you are—a good tipper, a brusque faux gastronome—that information might precede you to a restaurant. Object to it. Call it what you want. But you might also consider getting used to it, tipping better, and being polite.

None of this is a comment on what our public policies should be. They should neither favor this cultural change nor fight it. People need to understand what happens with information about them, and they should be able to withhold information if they want, though that may be hard for privacy outliers to do.

As a student of information, I find it hard to accept that a restaurant noting the information you’ve made available to it is “spying.”

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