Posts Tagged ‘privacy’

A couple of months ago, I was in H&R Block filing my late father’s taxes. It was late April, and the tax deadline here in Canada is April 30, so you can imagine the scene. If not, allow me to paint it for you: chaotic, depressing yet hilarious, and nobody from H&R Block was happy to be doing their job. The manager, who was no older than 25 and, for what it’s worth, stereotypically gay, told one person who complained about the price of her tax return, that he wouldn’t pay that much to get his taxes done here and would absolutely go elsewhere, if not for the fact that he was the manager on duty. This might get him in trouble, but I believe his name was Tyler. Sorry Tyler.

Another woman, whom I had been in to meet with two days earlier about my late father’s tax return only to have her show me the door when I wasn’t able to produce legal documents authorizing me as the executor of my father’s will (which didn’t exist because my dear old dad died without a will, or an executor, or anything else for that matter) and after explaining the situation to her, she still turned me away. Imagine Kelly Kippur from “The Office”, and suck every ounce of life and personality out of her—voila. On this particular day, Tyler the manager told her that her next customer was ready, to which she replied something to the effect of “I need to go to the washroom”, and left. Somewhere between five and ten minutes later she returned to her workstation, and immediately turned around to leave again while her customer waited. When asked where she was going by her boss, she snapped back at him “I haven’t been to the washroom yet!” even though she had just been out of the office for an extended period of time. She eventually came back from the washroom. Fortunately, I was not the person waiting on her.

The person I was waiting for was an older woman. I didn’t have an appointment, but I was next in line to meet with her. She was late taking her lunch, and unfortunately had to take it while I waited for her to return. She spent her lunch hour outside the “office” (I use the word “office” loosely—it’s poorly lit, has no windows, and is located on the top floor of The Bay at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto, shoved into a glorified crawl space at the far end of a cafeteria that I doubt few know exists), which I would have no problem with if she hadn’t spent half of that hour meeting with a client about a tax return while I waited. Yes, she worked through her lunch (good) but met with someone else while I waited not just within earshot but in plain sight nearby (very bad).

So after waiting about two hours and seeing all of this, plus listening to Tyler take phone calls and watching H&R Block co-workers attempt to co-exist, I had every reason to tweet the following:

I’m at H&R Block, by far the most hilarious screwed up workplace I’ve encountered in a long time

I thought absolutely nothing of it and continued waiting. That was at 3:07 p.m. At 3:30 p.m. I received an email from H&R Block titled “H&R Block Customer Support”, and it reads as follows:

Good Afternoon,

Thank you for contacting H&R Block’s Customer Support.

We were sorry to read that the service you received did not appear to meet your expectations.

We have escalated this concern to the District Manager in order to have your concern further investigated.  Please trust that your satisfaction in our product and services is of the utmost importance to us at H&R Block, and that you will be contacted by a local resource within 2 business days.

We have started a file for your concern, for tracking purposes your reference number is XXXXXXX. Please keep this number and refer to it should there be a need for any future correspondence.

Thank you for choosing H&R Block for your tax requirements and providing us with the opportunity to ensure that our service does meet your expectations.

Have a nice day.

Customer Support Team
H&R Block Canada

My first reaction was confusion. My post on Twitter didn’t even come to my mind, so I didn’t know what this e-mail was regarding. Obviously, I asked Tyler because I thought he might be able to explain it since there was a reference number quoted. Tyler was helpful and picked up the phone to find out more info, but the person on the other line couldn’t give him any information because it was a matter for the district manager and he wasn’t privy to that information. He actually told me it was a big deal and he would be sure to hear about it soon—and he didn’t mean that in a good way. I still didn’t have a clue why I had been contacted by customer service. I sat down, spent at least 15 minutes thinking it over, and slowly realized what had happened. That’s when I stopped talking to Tyler and started to worry.

I needed to get my late father’s taxes done. I didn’t have a clue how to file for a deceased person, especially one without anything more than a death certificate and a T4 slip. I had waited for several hours. I was at the mercy of H&R Block, and I had just told the store manager that I had been contacted by customer service about a complaint that I knew nothing about.

You may be saying, “Chris, how could you not have figured out in today’s uber-connected world that H&R Block was e-mailing you about your tweet because they monitor social media?” and that’s fair. In my defence, I’m not a genius. Still, for H&R Block to file a complaint, escalate it to the district manager, and notify me of it all before I even had the chance to leave H&R Block’s office? That’s fast—and because my tweet could have upset any number of people who work in that office, I say H&R Block reacted too fast. YES, TOO FAST. Tyler wasn’t able to learn why I had received the email from customer service over the phone right away, but he soon learned (while I continued waiting) that my complaint came from “one of those internet sites like Twitter or Facebook”. Can you imagine how uncomfortable it made me feel to sit there waiting for service from his staff thinking that at any moment he could find out that I said his office was “hilariously screwed up”?

In the end, I sat down with the woman I had waited a few hours to see, and she filed my taxes in minutes. Tyler even gave me a discount for waiting so long. In the end, I had a good experience with H&R Block at the store level because I understand that everyone is under pressure during tax season. Would I take my tweet back? Of course not, but H&R Block’s customer service did the company a disservice by contacting me and putting me in the uncomfortable position they did. I’m sure there’s a lot to be said about privacy and social media monitoring in this example, but I think I’ve said enough for one blog post. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you have any.

Oh and by the way, I never did hear from H&R Block, even though they promised to contact me within two business days.

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Recently over lunch, a client explained to me that her company once tested its employees to find out what “type” of person each of them was. The test asked a series of hypothetical “What if..?” and multiple-choice questions (for example: “You win the lottery. What do you do first?”). How that individual answered the questions—for example, either emotionally (“Throw a party”), or analytically (“Call your accountant”), and so on—determined the person’s type, particularly related to the employment.

The company revealed the results to the employees, and everyone in the company learned a little bit about most of their co-workers. My client found the test to be enlightening, and talked about how she came to better understand some individuals as co-workers based on their test results.

I gave some thought to this from my perspective as an employee of a large multinational. If presented with a similar test, would I want my employer to know (or better yet, to think they know) what type of person I am based on an arbitrary test of my hypothetical reactions in differing situations? I concluded no, I’d be uncomfortable revealing personal information that might lead to my employer making a decision about me.

My thinking is simple: if I were to reveal aspects about myself to my employer that I would otherwise not reveal in a professional setting, then I might be judged on something that never happened. If a test found me to react emotionally to hypothetical questioning, who’s to say that I would react emotionally in a professional setting? My employer may be making an incorrect assumption about me without basing it on my actual performance. This would trouble me as an employee, even if the test results matched my actual performance on the job.

Another fault I found was that we think we know how we would react to the news that we had just won the lottery, but until we’re actually faced with that scenario, we will never actually know the correct answer. It’s the Minority Report problem: until someone commits the crime, they shouldn’t be convicted of it.

I took something called Myers-Briggs in college and found it to be mostly nonsense. Have you ever taken a test that revealed your “personality type”? If so, did you find it to be an accurate indicator of who you really are?

Moreover, I’d like my employer to understand me by my performance—to the point that they’d find a personality test useless after years of their own knowledge gathering. How would you feel about sharing your personality type with your employer?

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Call me old-fashioned, but I have a hard time giving my credit card number and purchase pattern information to every Tom, Dick, or Harry who asks for it. I’m even less thrilled about having that information broadcast to all of my beloved friends and followers online.

In the last year, services like Blippy, which connect directly to your credit card transactions and post them onto your social networks for the world to see, have become popular ways of sharing personal information within social networks. It makes me cringe. Status symbol or not, I don’t feel comfortable sharing that information or linking my credit card account so publicly. (I still black out my purchasing information when I use my bills as receipts.) If I feel the world needs to know that I spent $150 on a pair of jeans, I’ll post that information myself, thank-you very much.

A couple of days ago, TechCrunch reported on a soon-to-launch service called Offermatic, which asks users to give up their credit card information and transactions in return for savings based on recent purchases. For example, if you recently purchased a kitchen table, you might get an offer for $10 off kitchenware at Ikea. I’m all for saving money, and actually LOVE the daily Groupon offers that I get. I also agree that this is definitely an interesting and highly targeted idea, ideal for advertisers looking to push their product or service, but I still don’t feel comfortable allowing a third party to sort through and analyze my credit transactions (anonymously or not). Personally, I can’t see myself signing up for Offermatic or Blippy anytime soon. I can’t shake the paranoia that some other analysis of my data may be taking place in the back end, behind the scenes.

What do you think? Too Big-Brothery for you? Or are you more from the camp of “meh, what’s the worst that could happen?”

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I’m not quite sure where I stand on the phenomenon of location-aware applications. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that Foursquare is the hot one at the moment.) I find geo-tagging interesting; it’s the sort of thing that I want to use to build pre- and post-apocalyptic fantasies. But marking a spot with useful or neat info, and letting others know you were there, is different from letting people know exactly where you are now. Well, I think so anyway.

I see the value of letting friends or acquaintances know where you are at a given time: you can increase the likelihood of “chance” rendez-vous, and it adds an element of hyper-modern fun or adventure to our hyper-tech lives. It tries to put the social back in social networking.

I think of location-awareness as a sort of antidote to the separation that social networking brings on, whether it actually works or not. I’ve mentioned before that I now spend far more time at my computer than ever before, which, besides its other effects, makes me feel like I’m missing out on being social, even when I’m engaging in conversations on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other forum. By letting others on my networks know where I am when I do get away from the new boob tube, I can at least feel like I’m being a bit more “real” social. Well, I don’t precisely do this. At least not via a specific location-aware application. Occasionally I’ll mention on Twitter where I am or where I’m going (usually obliquely), and I guess I’m not sure exactly why I do that.

Anyway, at the moment, I hardly go anywhere except for home and work, so my location posts would be excessively dull!

There’s a dark side to all of this sharing though. Just as identity thieves can mine social networking sites and the world wide web in general for personal information to recreate private identities and do all kinds of bad stuff, enterprising thieves might use personal location information to determine when a person is and is not at home and when she is likely to return: the perfect opportunity—practically an invitation—to steal. That’s kind of the premise of Please Rob Me, a website that uses Foursquare data from Twitter to inform the world when people are away from their homes, and thus supposedly when those homes are ripe for a’robbin’. (Really, their goal is “to raise some awareness on this issue [of privacy] and have people think about how they use services like Foursquare, Brightkite, Google Buzz etc. Because everybody can get this information.”)

I’m not an alarmist when it comes to this sort of thing, but I do believe that identity thieves are out there, and I’m sure that somewhere someone is in fact nefariously collecting information on social networkers’ whereabouts. I don’t think those are necessarily reasons to stop using Twitter or foursquare; just think smart and be safe, okay?

On the other hand, I think Blippy is one of the worst things I’ve ever heard of. The site updates your status, like Twitter, with every purchase you make on your credit card. And sane people volunteer to share this information with the world. This seems to me to a shockingly shallow intentional expression of private information. (And I’m not going to provide a hyperlink, because I don’t think you should bother visiting the site.) People used to say that Twitter was narcissistic, but Blippy has no other purpose than to gloat over one’s consumption. There’s little more narcissistic than that. Barbara Kiviat writes in Time Magazine that the idea of posting every credit card purchase might shame people into spending less, but one of the website’s co-founders, Philip Kaplan, points to an opposite trend: spending more so that the world knows all the cool stuff you’re buying and doing. Kiviat herself finds the urge to spend more rising within her after using Blippy for a while. Ugh!

When we look at social networking tools in isolation, it’s difficult to see the harm that they might cause, but these tools don’t exist in isolation, especially not now. I think it should be clear enough that releasing important private information can lead to bad things without the many warnings about doing it, but the warnings are there, and the problems will only get deeper the more information we choose to share.

Where will all of this private disclosure lead? What are the advantages? Do they outweigh the potential pitfalls? I could pretty much talk about this for hours, but I’ll let you chime in for a minute…

—Adam

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