In shoppers' online networks, privacy has no price tag

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

On the newest social networking Web sites, you are what you buy:

ilona spent $6.41 at Chipotle.

AshleyMarie got 1 song from iTunes for $1.29 ("Can't Be Tamed" by Miley Cyrus).

suchitagarwal spent $464.44 at Sta Travel Inc. ("Eurail Global Pass for 15 days!").

So read recent updates on Blippy, a sort of Twitter for shopping that allows users to automatically broadcast what they bought using credit and debit cards to the rest of the world.

The founders of the network and rival site Swipely say the purpose is to reveal the stories behind America's stuff and explore how much our purchases reflect our personalities. Are we Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts, Target or Wal-Mart, Payless or Prada?

"Part of it, for a lot of people, is simply: 'I shop; therefore I am,' " said Paco Underhill, a consumer researcher and author of the books "What Women Want" and "Why We Buy." "The ability to consume is part of what their identities are based on."

But privacy advocates say that users are divulging a dangerous level of personal financial information -- Blippy has reported one security breach -- and that the sites could become a gold mine for marketers seeking detailed data on potential customers.

Concern about advertiser access has spurred a backlash against social networking, with sites such as exposing the level of personal information on Twitter and users launching a viral campaign to give up Facebook.

"You're really talking about giving up your innermost secrets to the wider world, and that has consequences," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Five months after Blippy was publicly launched, its users share $1.5 million in transactions every week, and the company says that amount is growing rapidly. Members can give Blippy access to their credit and debit card accounts as well as 15 other online accounts, such as iTunes, Netflix or Amazon. The site compiles a history of purchases, some dating back several years, and automatically records new ones. Members can choose which purchases to make public on their profiles, but the site's default setting is to share them all with the world.

Blippy co-founder Philip Kaplan calls this "passive sharing" because members don't have to sign in to use the site; Blippy already knows what you're doing with every swipe. And friends, or strangers, can join your network and watch your money leave your wallet.

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