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Preference profilers: 'We know what you bought last summer'

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Remember the global village? The place where distance didn't matter anymore and everybody knew everybody else?

Well, digital technology has moved us partway there. But, increasingly, the future looks like a fish bowl.

Tiny cameras record your reactions in store aisles. Web software tracks your mouse clicks. To paraphrase that old "Cheers" theme song, we're going where every marketer knows our name.

Now, before you complain, consider the benefits.

By delving deeply into consumer thinking, companies can deliver excellent customer service and, occasionally, stunning new products. Lines at the bank and the grocery store should grow shorter. Ideally, marketers would never call or e-mail unless they had something you really wanted (but don't hold your breath on that one).

The tradeoff for this marketing paradise is privacy. The security cam- era in the convenience store becomes an intelligence gatherer. That favorite website where you registered sells your name and address to firms you've never heard of.

"We need to be more vigilant in the big scheme of things," says William Staples, a sociology professor at the University of Kansas and author of "Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life."

While people usually link surveillance to Big Brother government, private entities – what he calls "Tiny Brothers" – are carrying out the bulk of today's watching. "I think there's more of a threat to privacy from them rather than the feds," Professor Staples says.

And however much researchers share common concerns about privacy, this new area of consumer research is moving so fast that few of its practitioners have really grappled with its social implications.

When the American Civil Liberties Union surveyed Manhattan in 1998, it discovered 2,397 cameras monitoring the streets. Private entities operated more than 2,100 of them. And while law enforcement is increasingly embracing video technology, especially since Sept. 11, businesses still own most of the cameras.

May we watch you shower?
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