Wednesday, July 25, 2007

If Your Name is Michaels, My Name is D78#*xj

Kathi is decorating her office with large prints of some photographs from our recent trips. We were recently at a craft (chain) store named Michaels to buy the frame materials, and one of the photographs required a custom order. The young man at the frame department took our order, had us pay for it, and asked us to fill in our contact information.

I wasn't firing on all cylinders that afternoon, but it still struck me as odd that they wanted details like a street address. What were they going to do—mail a 24x36 border to our house? Besides, we had already pre-paid for the item, so it seemed it would be our problem to take delivery, not theirs. (Indeed, the form Kathi was filling had some legalese about how Michaels would hold the ordered item for only sixty days or so, further confirming that now that they had our money, it was now our problem, not theirs.)

While filling, Kathi noticed that she was signing an extremely generous waiver regarding what they could do with the information. She asked the frame clerk whether she could avoid providing all this information. He said he wasn't sure. Meanwhile, I noticed that the text included an express option for restricting distribution of the data. I asked how we could invoke that option. He wasn't sure about that either, but hesitantly asked whether we'd like to speak with a manager. He was slightly taken aback by the vigor with which I said yes.

The manager arrived. We explained the situation. She was two parts surprise that anyone would care (doesn't everyone love catalogs full of kitchy “crafts projects”?) and one part flummoxed. She didn't seem to entirely understand what we wanted. I pointed her to the line on the contract offering the opt-out (it wasn't an opt-in, natch). Her next two sentences would infuriate any privacy-conscious person: first, “I've never had anyone ask for that before” followed (much worse) by, “I have no idea how to do that”. In other words, Michaels cares so little about this that not only do they have an opt-out rather than an opt-in, they haven't trained their staff—not even their managers—how to enact it.

Points, though, to the frame clerk. He thought for a moment and said, “Now that we've placed the order, how about if I go into the database and erase that data?” The manager looked even more confused, but having no good argument for anything at this point, she consented. Of course, it's impossible to tell whether that will have any effect; for all we know, the moment the order was placed, our address had been zipped out to twenty different purveyors of schmaltzy catalogs. Time will tell.

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