Web Coupons Tell Stores More Than You Realize

The NY Times reports that a new breed of coupon, printed from the Internet or sent to mobile phones, looks standard, but their bar codes can be loaded with a startling amount of data, including identification about the customer, Internet address, Facebook page information, and even the search terms the customer used to find the coupon in the first place. The coupons can, in some cases, be tracked not just to an anonymous shopper but to an identifiable person: a retailer could know that Amy Smith printed a 15-percent-off coupon after searching for appliance discounts at Ebates.com on Friday at 1:30 pm and redeemed it later that afternoon at the store. Using coupons also lets the retailers get around Google hurdles. Google allows its search advertisers to see reports on which keywords are working well as a whole but not on how each person is responding to each slogan. That alarms some privacy advocates. Companies can ‘offer you, perhaps, less desirable products than they offer me, or offer you the same product as they offer me but at a higher price,’ said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the United States Public Interest Research Group, which has asked the Federal Trade Commission for tighter rules on online advertising. ‘There really have been no rules set up for this ecosystem.’

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