This isn't the biggest or worst assault on privacy ever. But if you're interested in what happens to all that data you give up online and off, you should read Bloomberg's latest piece on the RadioShack bankruptcy proceeding. If nothing else, it's a window onto privacy battles to come.
Before it failed, RadioShack essentially promised not to sell its customers' data - names, email and actual addresses, shopping history, and the like. It even boasted of its promise. Now? An offer for the chain's assets suggests your data is just something else to cash in on as it liquidates. Bloomberg says two states and AT&T have already raised objections - though, in AT&T's case, only because it says some of the data belongs to it, not the Shack:
RadioShack's customers—even those whose most recent purchase came years ago—could also find themselves sold off in the deal. The company included personal data in its bankruptcy auction as its own asset class. A website maintained by Hilco Streambank, which is serving as an intermediary for RadioShack, says that more than 13 million e-mail addresses and 65 million customer names and physical address files are for sale. Hilco Streambank is careful to note that the bankruptcy court might not approve the deals, and there have already been two legal filings in attempts to block the sale of customer data.
The broader challenge, filed last week by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, argues that RadioShack made an explicit promise to its customers not to sell their personal data. Paxton claims that 117 million people are included in RadioShack's customer data sale, which he says offers some details about shopping habits. The filing cites text from a sign displayed in RadioShack stores reading: "We pride ourselves on not selling our private mailing list." State law in Texas prohibits companies from selling personally identifiable information in a way that violates their own privacy policies. On Monday, Tennessee's attorney general joined Texas's objection.
AT&T is also trying to stop RadioShack from sharing some of its consumer data for a different reason: The wireless carrier believes the information isn't RadioShack's to sell. AT&T worked with RadioShack to market phones, allowing RadioShack to build up a trove of information that includes, among other things, lists of AT&T customers. AT&T says it owns this data and wants RadioShack's records destroyed. Given that one bidder in the bankruptcy proceedings plans to co-brand some RadioShack locations as Sprint stores, AT&T is clearly concerned that the auction could give sensitive information to a competitor.
Customer lists, to be sure, have traditionally been deemed part of a company's assets - in past sales of newspapers, for example, subscriber lists have sometimes been considered the key asset for a buyer. (They're a lot more valuable than today's reporting, which is old news by tomorrow.)