TUCoPS :: Privacy :: priv_607.txt

Privacy Digest 6.07 5/18/97

PRIVACY Forum Digest      Sunday, 18 May 1997      Volume 06 : Issue 07

            Moderated by Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com)         
              Vortex Technology, Woodland Hills, CA, U.S.A.
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	   A PRIVACY Forum Special Report
	   (Lauren Weinstein; PRIVACY Forum Moderator)

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   Quote for the day:

	"Feed the birds and what have you got?  Fat birds!"

		-- Bank Chairman, Mr. Dawes, Sr. (Dick Van Dyke)
		   "Mary Poppins" (Disney; 1964)


Date:    Sun, 18 May 97 16:05 PDT
From:    lauren@vortex.com (Lauren Weinstein; PRIVACY Forum Moderator)
	 A PRIVACY Forum Special Report

Greetings.  In recent years we've come to mostly think of privacy problems
in a "hi-tech" vein; visions of databases, infrared cameras, and crypto
software dance in our heads.  But sometimes privacy can be subverted by very
low-tech events, even as a direct side-effect of declining customer service.

It is in that light that we begin the story of goings on at one of
California's biggest financial institutions, Well Fargo Bank.  For those of
you who aren't familiar with Wells, perhaps out of state, you might still do
well to heed this saga; you can probably look forward to similar amusing
goings-on coming to banks near you!

I've always tried my darndest to give Wells credit where credit was due.
When they improved their phone service security through the implementation
of user-selected PINs, I publicly applauded.  But a fascinating (in a 
"Dr. Strangelove" sort of way) evolution that is now occurring in the banking
industry (particularly Wells at the moment), which seems likely to
significantly reduce privacy and increase errors, and it's all happening
under the banner of the "customer service" credo.

For years now, we've watched as the big banks have gobbled up the smaller
ones, creating mega-banks of enormous size and power.  Regulators usually
approve these acquisitions after assurances that the end result will be the
oft-quoted "better service and lower costs" we hear about so often, but
somehow never seem to see.  As the choices that consumers have for banking
are reduced (and for most people, not dealing with banks at all is an
unviable option), the long-range logistical goals of the industry begin to
take shape.  In the case of Wells, arguably up until recently the most
visible bank in California, that shape appears to be a desire to be less a
bank and more a supermarket chain!  And this is where the privacy problems
rear their ugly heads.

In the Los Angeles area for example, Wells has been closing down
neighborhood branches (and their attendant ATMs) at an alarming pace.  In
some suburban areas of the city, multiple branches which represented the
only facilities for many miles have been closing one after another.  Wells,
however, has an answer for this, their exciting new supermarket banking
centers (apparently the newest phase of joint ventures)--that's where they
tell you to go if you complain about having no nearby branch anymore.

What's a supermarket banking center?  Let's go visit one inside a nearby
large supermarket.  Be sure to bring the day's receipts along if you're a
merchant!  After pulling into the crowded parking lot and searching around
ten minutes for a parking place, we finally find one and work our way
towards the door.  Oops, almost got run over by a guy racing out the door
with a shopping cart full of beer!  And watch out for that spilled milk on
the floor.  Hey, this is excitement in banking!  

Stepping further inside, we're immediately greeted with the blaring
announcements of the public address system, informing us of a special on
one-ply toilet paper in aisle 12.  Hmm.  Where's that bank?  Ah, here it is,
nestled against the narrow aisle that runs behind the seemingly endless rows
of checkout counters, replete with overflowing shopping carts, screaming
children, and all manner of humanity that populate this chaotic funzone.  

The "bank" itself is a miracle of compactness amidst the clutter.  A couple
of ATM units sitting closely side by side, a small low counter with a few
CRTs, a couple of tired looking Wells employees, and a bored looking guard.
All of this is conviently sandwiched between the much larger tobacco products
section and the twenty pound bags of clumping cat litter.  

One can understand why the bank personnel look so tired--people keep
coming up to them (often while they're in the midst of banking
transactions) asking for the location of canned tuna, navel oranges, and
other delectables.  Well, the need for concentration on a single task in
the financial industry is overrated anyway...

With all this exciting activity packed so closely together, it shouldn't
seem surprising that privacy must give way to the needs of nearby food
shoppers.  The folks using the ATMs are presumably unconcerned that their
every touch of the screen and punch of the keyboard are visible to literally
dozens of folks, from the checkout baggers and customers in line, to the BBQ
king apparently studying the 50 pound bags of charcoal briquettes nearby.

And what's that customer at the bank counter saying so loudly over the din
to the bank rep?  It sounds like his name and Social Security Number!  And
why is that fellow standing around over there staring so intently at the
form being filled out over at the bank counter?  Just bored waiting for his
food to be bagged I guess--can't really help it with so much concentrated
action afoot!  Luckily, we don't have to worry about people who might actually
enter such establishments with the *intent* of collecting personal
information.  Who would sink so low as to use supermarkets, the cornerstone
of our modern communities, for nefarious purposes?  

Is it really this bad?  Yes.  Amazingly so.  And what if you, for some
perverse reason, would prefer to do your banking in a bank that is not an
adjunct to a massive food sales operation?  Well, it can be done, but given
the falling number of banks and branches, it's going to get tougher and
tougher, and entail further and further travel to ever more crowded
remaining branches.  

Let's be clear about this.  If some persons wish to do banking when they go
to the market, and don't mind the logistical inanity of the setup, they
should be free to do so.  Unfortunately many of these folks will also be
oblivious to the privacy problems inherent in those locations, and will be
easy prey for the prying eyes, but hey, it's convenient, right?  It's
another matter, however, when branch closings and general policy 
effectively *force* customers into this mode.

If you try complain about this trend, be prepared for the usual replay of
"Family Feud" surveys.  You'll be told that "most people like to do their
banking in the supermarket."  Well gee whiz, I guess I'm just out of step.
And what of merchants or other businesspersons who visit the bank
frequently, even daily--customers who might find the atmosphere of the
supermarket decidedly non-optimum?  The phone reps will imply that "special"
branches for business may be opening over "the next couple of years," but
they can't tell you where at this point.

"Gee, you certainly managed to close the branches faster than that!"

Ouch!  Wrong thing to say.  I was treated to one of the nastiest retorts
from a Wells Fargo employee, or *any* phone service rep, I've had the
displeasure to absorb.  In fact, there seems to be a lot of touchiness with
Wells' representatives on this topic if you ask about it.  One begins to
wonder if perhaps more than a few people have been complaining about the
branch closings and their relegation to the brave new world of supermarket
high finance... 

Oh, by the way, Wells' phone agents tell me that there's no official
mechanism to complain directly to corporate staff about these sorts of
issues.  You're supposed to send a letter to "any branch" you wish.  They
seem to discourage direct communications about these issues to Wells' CEO:

Mr. Paul Hazen
Wells Fargo
P.O. Box 63710
San Francisco, CA  94163

So the shape of the future becomes a bit more clear, and our little 
saga draws to a close.  The bank buildings fade away, to be replaced
by supermarket cubbyholes and online service screens (Wells'
Internet access online service conveniently requires your Social
Security Number and a password for access; one less number to
remember, eh?)  All those little branches taking up room scattered
around the city can be transformed into parking lots and mini-malls,
and we all move forward into a shining world of fruit, nuts, cigarettes, 
and ATM cards.  It's a good time to be alive.

Moderator, PRIVACY Forum


End of PRIVACY Forum Digest 06.07

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