Thursday, August 2, 2018

For how much would you sell your dietary habit information?

Credit card offers in the mail can be more interesting than they first appear. They tell you want financial institutions want.

Yesterday I pulled one out of my mailbox that offered three tiers of “Cash Back.”

3% Cash Back on Dining.
2% Cash Back at Grocery Stores.
1% Cash Back on other eligible purchases.

In other words, they really want to know what I eat, especially when it might not be completely healthy by someone else's standard. Why might that be?

I'm sure financial institutions don't really care what I eat. Financial institutions care about finances—making money. If they can buy information from me about what I eat, to whom might they be able to sell it for a profit?

Data brokers, of course. (Data brokers stay busy these days.) This isn't just your run-of-the-mill identity information. That's small potatoes by comparison. This is health information. Data brokers buy multiple types of information from multiple sources, and a credit card purchase history showing times, amounts, and merchants helps tie it all together. They won't just know how much I paid and when, but what I bought and how often. What can they do with that?

Information theft is a different category than information selling, but a comparison helps illustrate a point: If someone steals your credit card information, you can call the bank, cancel the card, get a new card, and the crisis is past. If someone steals your health information, there's no getting back your privacy. The thief may offer a ransom, but the risk and the stakes are very high. That's the difference between identity theft and medical identity theft.

I suggest we make it harder to steal or buy medical or health information by making as little as possible available in the first place. Pay in cash. Put the credit card offers through the shredder.

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