Monday, July 22, 2013

Future Liability Problems of Big Data for Merchants

In the wake of the PRISM scandal, many have wondered about the trust we give to corporations that mine data. Do we trust AT&T with those same phone records? Do we trust Google with the knowledge of everything that's in our mind (by way of evaluating our searches?)

I feel fairly confident that corporations will try to act in a responsible way with that information, at least within their own corridors (maybe not when forced to give it to the government). I expect it more than I would expect unelected, unaccountable people in a black cube in Maryland to act responsibly with the same information. At least with corporations, abuse is likely easier to prove--since jailtime is not a threat for someone who exposes it--and will be countered with harsh consumer ramifications. In government, the information could be much more surreptitiously used to, for example, keep Bobby Jindal or Hillary Clinton out of the next Presidential election.

So I'm not that worried about corporations abusing our data compared to government.

However, I had a thought experiment today that started when I was buying groceries at Safeway.

Safeway has tracked every purchase I've made for probably 10 years now thanks to their rewards card. Today I got a printed offer for those yummy Mio drink thingies with my receipt, since I bought a bunch of Mio like 2 months ago and Safeway's Skynet thinks it must probably be high time to replenish (turns out, it's right! That delicious Black Cherry Mio needs replenishing)

Guess what? I also buy wine at Safeway. Occasionally, those little print-out things offer me discounts on wine. (Godawful brands I wouldn't buy, but nonetheless, it does it)

Now, most states have what's called Dram Shop liability. This is that whole thing where a bartender can't serve people who are visibly intoxicated or else risk being sued when they run over someone with their car or do something harmful under the influence.

Connecting these thoughts together. If I'm a person clearly having an alcohol abuse problem... that is, if I'm a customer buying two bottles of vodka per day or something... won't Safeway be able to tell of the person's issue from the data? I bet they can.

So could we headed towards a future where merchants like Safeway--having used "big data" to create personalized rewards shopping--can be held liable for the effects of those rewards? In essence, if I become an alcoholic and develop cirrhosis, or become obese and diabetic, can I then turn around and sue Safeway for their incentivizing these purchases?

I'd say the answer is of course, yes, their liability will someday be challenged this way if they keep it up. I'm not at all for tort law, but it does always push the boundaries of blame. And when merchants are using this kind of data to key into people's habits for something harmful or addictive, the computer may be opening them them up to lawsuits down the road.

We'll see. Food for thought (pun intended)

1 comment:

Blogger Sucks said...


Man, Blogger still sucks ass. Two-Factor Auth and a thoroughly illegible captcha to post a comment!