My friend bought a T-shirt at a well-known retail outlet in Bengaluru. At the checkout counter, she was asked for her mobile number and email ID, before processing her bill. She refused to give these details – it was, she argued, irrelevant (she knew that the information would be used for advertising, and sales or even sold to other commercial entities wanting such details for reaching and wooing citizens with promotions).
The store refused to process her purchase, saying that they also stocked and sold stuff like camping equipment, for which customers’ contact details were necessary, in case a product had to be recalled. It was a specious argument, since a T-shirt (which is what she bought) is never ‘recalled’ after purchase. She had heard from friends that giving out mobile or email IDs invariably resulted in unwanted promotional messages that are an annoyance (this, even if you have blocked unwanted calls by registering under DND – Do Not Disturb – facility) I can confirm this. Even repeated complaints to the telecom service-provider do not help, as the advertisers sneak in using new numbers every time to circumvent the rule barring promotions.
If a salesperson turns up at your door, and you are not interested in his spiel, you can shut the door on him; or you can instruct the watchman in your building to prohibit entry to salespersons. But if the salesmen are sneaking in freely, and claiming your attention regardless of whether you are interested or not, that is an intrusion and erosion of privacy, and damages your right to be left alone.
Thanks to burgeoning technological sophistication, that is exactly what is happening today, with impunity. Notwithstanding the ongoing debate on citizens’ right to privacy as a basic right. And most of us are keeping quiet, instead of raising our collective voices against such intrusion.
Switch on your computer, and you find unbidden promotional messages popping up in the midst of your work. You can have ‘firewalls’ and ‘cookies’ to prevent such messages coming in, but it does not always work, because the sales promoters are, always, one step ahead, in sneaking in, and harvesting personal details.
“Are sellers legally allowed to demand details of buyers’ mobile and email ID details?” my friend wondered. This is common strategy all over, especially in big stores and malls,” Moneylife told me.
There is no rule to protect us from such intrusions. Moneylife also found out that an amendment to the Consumer Protection Act, to protect citizens against unwanted online sales pitches, has been pending for four years (because, obviously, consumers’ rights are not a priority among political strategies in the corridors of power). What a shame, if we call ourselves a ‘democracy’ where governance is, by definition, “for the people, of the people and by the people” – and this, in a country of 1.3 billion consumers of whom, over 700 million had mobile phones, at last count, and 500 million had access to computers and Internet.
The average citizen sees erosion of privacy as an esoteric concept “not relevant to the daily, mundane dealing that preoccupy the majority” – but this is not true. It is as much worrisome if strangers seeking commercial benefit sneak in, seeking attention, by harvesting personal details, as it is if an unknown salesperson sneaks into our homes. Both are intrusions, and equally condemnable. So why are most consumers quietly and meekly supplying their email IDs and mobile numbers to commercial establishments whose priority is only sales and increasing profits?
Most of us are aware of email messages declaring us ‘lucky winners’ and offering fabulous ‘prizes’. Many fall for this scam, as per reports in the newspapers. Even lawyers, doctors and highly educated citizens have become victims and lost money, sometimes running to lakhs of rupees. If you think it “cannot happen to you”, just keep in mind that scamsters are always one step ahead of the law and specialise in inventing new ways of milking the gullible; the first step is to gain access by harvesting IDs and phone numbers. You do not have to give these out, except to genuine parties about whom you are sure. Would you trust a ‘decent looking’ salesperson and let him in?
(Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist. She is a renowned senior vocalist in both traditions of Indian classical music - Hindustani and Carnatic, an A-graded artiste of All India Radio in both traditions. She is also a musicologist and author, and has written a book on the Rampur gharana.)