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Best Buy changes privacy policy

The changes are only the latest in a disturbing trend of companies revamping their privacy policies to the detriment of consumers, privacy advocates say.

    Best Buy is changing its online privacy policy, allowing the company to combine customer information from its Web site with that collected in its stores.

    As part of the policy modification, the company also said it may share with third parties information collected from surveys or reviews on its site. The company has begun notifying customers of the changes via e-mail; the updated policy will go into effect June 9.

    The shift raised the eyebrows of some privacy advocates. The changes are only the latest in a disturbing trend of companies revamping their privacy policies to the detriment of consumers, advocates say. Companies usually make such changes themselves, taking little input from customers and leaving them with little recourse.

    "This illustrates the fact that privacy policies don't mean anything," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's unfair, and very little has been done by authorities to end these practices."

    But Best Buy spokeswoman Joy Harris said that combining online and offline data will help the company serve customers better. Already 40 percent of the company's in-store customers research products through the BestBuy.com Web site, she said.

    "It only makes sense that as a retailer whose customers shop online and in stores that we need to have the data combined," Harris said. "This really helps us offer customers a more seamless clicks-and-mortar experience."

    Similar strategies elsewhere
    The privacy changes at Best Buy follow similar changes at other leading online companies in recent months. In March, for instance, Yahoo revamped its privacy policy and reset members' preferences to "yes" on several marketing-related questions, forcing members to opt out of receiving e-mail from the company about various products.

    Meanwhile, eBay updated its privacy policy in February, making it easier for the company to share members' personal information and warning customers that they may not be able to rely on other privacy statements on its site if they differ from its official privacy policy. After criticism from privacy advocates, eBay later backed off its warning about possibly conflicting statements.

    The move by Best Buy to combine online and brick-and-mortar data echoes an effort in 2000 by marketing company DoubleClick to combine its online and offline data. DoubleClick's data comes from numerous Web sites--not just its own site. DoubleClick, which provides online marketing services, merged in 1999 with Abacus Direct, which works with catalog companies.

    DoubleClick decided to hold off on combining its data after receiving pressure from privacy advocates and consumers.

    But Best Buy is not the only traditional retailer to try to combine customer data from online and offline stores. A number of brick-and-mortar companies, such as Petco, already have warned consumers that they may share data collected online with their various divisions.

    Taste of the future?
    Moves such as Best Buy's may become more common. To date, one of the primary impediments for companies that have wanted to combine their online and offline data has been a technological one: The companies' online databases and systems simply can't talk to their brick-and-mortar databases or do much with the information if they can. But with the growing use of customer relationship management and data-mining software, companies are beginning to be able to tie together their various customer data and create targeted messages from it.

    "Every retailer would love to know detailed data about their cross channel customers," said Carrie Johnson, an analyst with Forrester Research. "I think this is going to be an increasing issue for consumers."

    Best Buy is allowing customers who don't want to have their data combined to opt out by clicking on a link in its notice. But privacy advocates say that is insufficient. If the company really cares about consumers' privacy, it shouldn't combine their data unless they opt in, they said.

    "If so many of their in-store customers are shopping online, I think they should ask them" if they can combine the data, said Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Given their own findings, that opt-in could be quite successful for them.

    "It would be great to see a major company take the high road and start out with an opt-in."

    But Best Buy's Harris said having an opt-in system wasn't practical. Offering an opt-out system was "easiest" for Best Buy customers, she said.

    "Why have them make a decision about something that's seamless to them?" she said.