Trading my life for a Zippo

Like many stereotypical college students and Portlanders at large, I like to spend a bit of my ever-diminishing amount of free time in bars with my friends.

If you engage in this possibly destructive but definitely fun activity like I do, you may have noticed a growing and disturbing trend: secret agents for tobacco companies posing as attractive alcohol aficionados and bribing drink-addled patrons with free cigarettes or Zippo lighters in return for their personal information.

I’ve been of legal age for a few years now, so I know this isn’t anything new. I remember giving my name on a survey for Camel a few years ago in order to get a couple of packs of free cigarettes before I quit smoking.

But things have gotten a bit more alarming since the days of a pen-and-paper survey for the free stuff.

Last week, I was sitting at a bar sharing a pitcher of beer with several friends when an attractive young man about my own age – I’ll call him Phil – approached the table and asked us if we liked Zippo lighters.

I immediately volunteered to fill out his survey for a lighter. Heck, I kind of like filling out surveys, and with the internet, GPS chips in cell phones and especially the USA Patriot Act, I pretty much feel there’s not much I can keep secret if anyone really wants to know.

Still, I was a little shocked and dismayed when I handed Phil my driver’s license so he could verify my age, and he inserted it into a fancy text-book sized machine that not only read the magnetic strip on the back, but also took a digital photograph of the front and the back of my license, including my signature!

I thought he was just going to check my date of birth!

Before I could get out as much as a "Huh?" Phil had handed me back my license along with a package of information and my brand new Zippo and had high-tailed it to the next table to hoodwink some other drunks.

Think about all the information that can be obtained from a drivers license: name, address, second address, date of birth, height, weight, sex, eye color, hair color, social security number, organ donor information, medical indicators, alias and corresponding information, electronic signature image, electronic photo, digital fingerprints and facial recognition template.

I opened the packet of information and read the Philip Morris USA Privacy Statement, and grew even more concerned.

The information Philip Morris USA took from me they will use to add me to a mailing list, but also they "may obtain additional information about [me], such as demographic and lifestyle information, from others." They will also "maintain information on [my] activity with [them]."

That means they will forever have a full profile of me that I have no access to.

And though Philip Morris USA tried to reassure me by stating in the small cardboard privacy statement I received with my lighter that they will not sell or share information with others for their own marketing, they will share the information with companies they’ve hired and their subsidiaries.

This is terrifying because Philip Morris USA is itself part of a much larger conglomerate, the Altria Group Inc. (formerly Philip Morris Companies).

That means that all of the companies affiliated with Altria – including Kraft, Nabisco, SABMiller and Chrysalis Technologies – will have access to this consumer profile or have profiles of their own. Which means the information collected about me will not only be a smoker profile, it will include information on my eating and drinking habits, and who knows what else. All for a stupid Zippo that doesn’t have any fluid in it.

In a worst-case scenario, these files could be used by insurance companies to deny me coverage because of my history of smoking or drinking, be accessed by the government under the Patriot Act or be stolen by a ring of identity thieves 퀌� la ChoicePoint, the credit reporting company that recently gave critical personal information to fake businesspeople, leaving 145,000 people at serious risk for identity theft.

The legality of this practice of obtaining information is also questionable. Federal Trade Commission guidelines regarding responsible data collection have been established for over 30 years. They’ve been revised several times, but what they basically say is that companies should get the consumers informed consent prior to collecting any personally identifiable data. This means I should have been given the little privacy packet before Phil took any of my information.

I also should have had to give express permission for future data collection.

But even if this practice passes any future legal challenges (and considering the size and financial power of Altria, chances are…), there is still an ethical quandary.

Bars are places people go to relax, have fun and, well, drink. And people who are drinking have impaired decision-making processes.

It’s underhanded and dirty to prey on people when they’re not only uninformed about the extent of what they’re agreeing to by grabbing the free gift, but when they’re relaxing and letting their guard down – especially when they’re drinking.

Michelle Howa can be reached at [email protected].