RadioShack Puts Customer Information on the Auction Block

by Jeff Wiener on March 27, 2015

Like many boom-to-bust tech firms before it, the now defunct RadioShack saw the remnants of its once respectable retail business put up for auction earlier this week; giving hungry vultures bidders the chance to start plundering the company’s remaining stock of trademarks, patents, and other intellectual property. But in an issue truly unique to the digital age there is a privacy debate brewing around the company’s selloff, as aside from all the physical and intellectual assets a bankrupt company usually sells, RadioShack is attempting to sell off a completely new class of assets as well: its customers’ personal data.

As a Bloomberg report explains, “A website maintained by Hilco Streambank, which is serving as an intermediary for RadioShack, says that more than 13 million e-mail addresses and 65 million customer names and physical address files are for sale.” The website also noted that the bankruptcy court may not approve the inclusion of customer data as corporate assets, and there have already been two separate legal challenges attempting to block the sale of personal data.

Things get more complicated when one realizes that RadioShack already made an explicit promise to its customers to not sell customer information, as one legal challenge cites a sign displayed in a RadioShack store window that read: “We pride ourselves on not selling our private mailing list.” I suppose that same pride may now also be on the auction block, any takers?

It was once the haven for tech DIYers, a hub of gadgets and wires and remote controls. Whether you wanted batteries, some crazy looking Keytar musical instrument, or something to build a home-based short wave radio, well “The Shack” had it. In fact, the company even played an important role in the early development of the personal computer, making it an important player in early tech development. But even as the tech industry grew and developed RadioShack was still able to find its own niche, particularly as I said, among the do-it-yourself community, it just wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat.

But RadioShack will likely be known not for its role in the advent of the PC era or its stick-to-itiveness in a changing tech market, but for the fact that it’s publicly auctioning off the personal information of millions of its once loyal customers.

The truly interesting thing is that RadioShack is not really doing anything that other companies haven’t been doing for years; customer information has always been a commodity, just now in today’s digital age it’s being packaged and sold like never before.

So this once again raises an important question in the ongoing privacy debate, who really owns our personal information? As experts continue to warn, once you offer up your personal information to a company, you lose control over said information.

“People are looking at Radio Shack now and they are gonna vilify Radio Shack,” said consumer expert Paul Viollis on CBS New York. “But at the end of the day, Radio Shack isn’t doing anything all other major corporations haven’t been doing for many years.”

“When you go shopping the proprietor is not entitled to any personal information outside of the information you need to effect that transaction,” said Viollis. “So if they are going to ask you anything additional, the answer is absolutely not.” Simply put, if you didn’t want RadioShack to have your information, well you shouldn’t have given it to them in the first place.

But that said, now we’re faced with the issue of corporate trust, as customers trusted and backed the company enough to freely offer up their personal information, yet now that information collected by a trusted and established retailer is being packaged and sold to, well, who really knows, and that’s something that should have us all just a little worried.

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