POS Vendors Help Booksellers Protect Customer Privacy

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The FBI's expanded authority under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act allowing it to secretly request and serve a subpoena for bookstore and library records has spurred a small number of booksellers to ask their point-of-sale (POS) systems vendors to purge their databases of customers' title-specific purchase records, according to vendors who spoke to BTW.

"There is a wide range of opinions within the bookselling community as to the advisability of keeping, or not keeping, records, and it's apparent that there are lots and lots of variations between the different POS vendors," said ABA COO Oren Teicher. "We strongly advise booksellers who are contemplating purging their records to contact their own POS vendor to find out about their individual system's capabilities. BTW will continue to provide information -- but, in the end, stores need to decide for themselves what is best for them."

"We've had a few customers ask to have the customer title purchasing data removed," said Dave Walton, president of IBID. "We have a few that do this regularly -- specifically due to Patriot Act concerns."

In general, any bookstore that has been collecting title-specific data and is now looking to remove it from their POS system should contact their vendor. Often, it will be up to the vendor's programmers to conduct the initial purge. Once the purge is complete, some systems allow booksellers to simply enter a command so the inventory control system does not collect title-specific data in the future. In others, booksellers must have the database purged on a regular basis.

Daniel S. McCamley, vice president of sales for WordStock, said that the WordStock POS system tracks data on three levels: by receipt, by subject or department (e.g., fiction, nonfiction), and by item level (book title). "Any one of the three levels can be turned off," McCamley said. "We consciously did that -- we write specifically to the book world." He noted that WordStock has had a couple of bookseller clients in Vermont looking to have title information deleted from their databases.

Similarly, Computac, Inc.'s SquareOne POS system tracks sales by department or at the detail level. "If you want to get rid of the data, you would purge the 'Book Club' file and get rid of all the details of book purchases," Rick Murray, a programmer for Computac explained. "There is a 'Purge Option' at the Book Club menu where it would delete clubs and title information." Division manager Mike Hartman added that, once the database is purged of this information, for future purchases, it's easy to set up the system so that it doesn't collect title data. "We have a switch in the system that asks, 'Do you want to track purchases?'" he said. He noted that "one or two" booksellers have inquired about purging title information from their database.

IBID's Walton told BTW, "In IBID you can clear the title detail sales data for customers on a periodic basis. The customer still will get credit for these sales in the sales summary by customer file, but the actual individual title data is deleted. This can be done for all customers or a select group."

The question remains, however, whether data is actually removed from databases when deleted. Vendors explained that, while deleted data is still on the system, it is extremely hard to find. Even if someone were able to locate the data, it's comparable to finding part of a "gazillion-piece" jigsaw puzzle, said WordStock's McCamley.

"What happens in most systems is, you build a data file, and a lot of the time, when you delete a record, it's flagged and placed in a free record list," said Walton, who explained that this keeps the size of the database from growing too quickly. The bottom line is that, until these records are written over, the deleted files still exist on the database. "Unless you format the disk, nothing gets rewritten" right away, he said.

McCamley said that only a military wipe -- replacing all data with 1's and 0's seven times over -- would really remove all data from a database. Conversely, "only a handful of programmers can" access those deleted flagged records, he explained.

Walton stressed that title-specific information is "key marketing data…. If the local bookshop sent me materials that were interest specific -- I think that's very important, because the whole purpose of database marketing is so that your message is not considered to be spam."

Walton added that a bookstore could also offer a customer the chance to opt-out. "You could put some polite signage, 'We track what you buy, if you don't want us to do that, just say so.' So at the end of the sale, the bookseller would not enter in customer data."

Still, WordStock's McCamley said, "You can still get 1-to-1 marketing information at the departmental level and use that to do pinpointed mailings. At that level, what you do not get is the author-specific data."

To read two booksellers' perspectives on this issue, go to news.bookweb.org/read/1282 and news.bookweb.org/read/302.

Watch BTW for future articles on other POS vendors' reactions to this issue. --David Grogan