Privacy Witch Hunt Goes After Sears

Privacy alarmists have always thought the rest of us are a bunch of drool-bucket morons who can’t make our own decisions. Now they apparently think we’re a bunch of drool-bucket morons who can’t read simple English.

Sears last week became the latest business to come under fire from privacy advocates. The charge: The retailer failed to adequately disclose to consumers that joining its My SHC Community would result in tracking software being installed on their computers.

Why anyone would download tracking software to join Sears’ so-called community is anyone’s guess. But the claim that the retailer has buried disclosures about its use of said software is ridiculous.

In an effort to build its SNC Community, Sears.com has been greeting certain visitors with a pop-up window inviting them to join. “Ever wish you could talk directly to a retailer? Tell them about the products, services and offers that would really be right for you?” the pop-up asks, inviting consumers to supply their e-mail addresses.

Submitting an e-mail address results in a message sent from Sears to that address explaining the benefits of the program, and disclosing that joining it requires the consumer to download tracking software.

The main disclosure comes in the fourth paragraph of a seven-paragraph message set in 10-point Arial bold type. Here is the paragraph in full:

“To become a member of My SHC Community, we simply ask you to complete the registration process which includes providing us with your contact information as well as answering a series of profile questions that will help us get to know you better. You’ll also be asked to take a few minutes to download software that is powered by (VoiceFive). This research software will confidentially track your online browsing. This will help us better understand you and your needs, enabling us to create more relevant future offerings for you, other community members, and eventually all shoppers. You can uninstall the software at any time through the Add/Remove program utility on your computer. During the registration process, you’ll learn more about this application software and you’ll always have the opportunity to ask any and every question you may have.”

However, this disclosure isn’t enough for Computer Associates’ researcher Benjamin Googins and Harvard associate business professor Benjamin Edelman, who both blogged about it, fueling a string of critical articles in mainstream and trade press outlets.

“In seven paragraphs plus a set of bullet points, 582 words in total, the e-mail describes the SHC service in general terms. But the paragraphs’ topic sentences make no mention of any downloadable software, nor do the bullet points offer even a general description of what the software does,” wrote Edelman on his blog.

“The only disclosure of the software’s effects comes midway through the fourth paragraph, where the program is described as ‘research software [that] will confidentially track your online browsing,’” Edelman continued. “Sophisticated users who notice this text will probably abandon installation and proceed no further. But novices may mistakenly think the tracking is specific to Sears sites: SHC is a research program offered by Sears, so it is difficult to understand why tracking would occur elsewhere.”

Sophisticated users who notice this text? Is that an Ivy League euphemism for people who can read at or above a fifth-grade level? There is nothing hidden in Sears’ e-mail. The disclosure is plain as day.

Also, Edelman’s contention that “the only disclosure comes midway through the fourth paragraph” is utter nonsense. The disclosure begins in the second sentence of the fourth paragraph, which from that point on is about nothing else.

What’s more, paragraph four isn’t the only place the software is discussed. In outlining the supposed benefits of Sears’ effort, bullet point two says: “$10 sent to you after one month of active membership, just for joining this online community and installing the software application 2.”

And guess what the superscript “2” refers to: fine print at the bottom of the message discussing, once again, the software.

“Only one payment per computer, per email address, contingent upon retaining software on your computer for at least 30 days,” says the second of two—count ‘em, two—sentences of fine print.

While there is certainly a debate to be had over whether Sears should be tracking people’s behavior on Web sites other than its own—even with their permission—the contention that the retailer is keeping its plans a secret is nonsense.

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