Is Your Bank Tracking Your Movements: Bait and Switch Journalism Wants You To Think So

I received a link to this story from Huffington Post this morning with the apparently outrageous news that Ally Bank was somehow tracking its customers’ movements and using that information to bolster its profit margins.  This seems like a major breach of personal privacy, especially since this practice isn’t disclosed in their privacy policy.  The only problem with the story is that none of the most shocking details are actually true.

It’s a practice as old as time: the bait and switch.  I learned all about it in my 9th grade English class–you say something shocking and outrageous or announce an incredibly good deal to get the reader’s attention, only to steer them to something unrelated.  This article capitalized on the growing use (and fear) of location and other behavioral tracking as a way to generate more targeted advertising.  The practice of using your location to send you ads for places in your vicinity is just the latest way for companies to attract customers.  I shouldn’t be surprised that this headline got my attention, but I’m annoyed that I was played for a fool.

A spokeswoman for Ally Bank, formerly known as GMAC before the automaker’s financial unit changed its name after the TARP bailout in 2009, said that the company uses location information to help customers who visit its website find the nearest ATM.  She went on to say that the site does not store the information, nor does the company use that information for any other purpose.  Many apps and programs use location information, it’s getting to be a part of life.  It stands to reason that surreptitious monitoring is something to be concerned about, such as when it’s law enforcement doing the tracking.  A recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court presented this very question.  Arguing that it violated the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement for police to attach a GPS tracking device to monitor every movement over the course of a week or more, the petitioners case hangs on that fundamental right to be left alone.  It’s hardly appropriate for the government to know (or try to know) where everyone is at all times–the founders would be appalled.

Putting those two diatribes aside for the moment, the last thing I will say is that, while I enjoy some of the services that utilize location tracking, and even volunteer some of that information from time to time, it’s essential that consumers continue to demand that any service that wants to transmit your location explicitly seek your consent.  They also need to let you know, up front, for how long and for what purposes your information will be used.  A 15-page privacy policy isn’t what I’m talking about, either.  It has to be fewer than three lines long so people can read and comprehend it, regardless of whether they’re on a desktop computer or mobile device.

In the end, I’m thankful for the HuffPo’s bad journalism.  At least they’re keeping us on our toes.

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About Justin Kwong

An attorney in the Twin Cities and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law where I teach a seminar on the law of virtual worlds.
This entry was posted in Legal Developments, Mobile Devices, Privacy, Rights and Civil Liberties and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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