Helpful gesture or invasion of privacy?

Last weekend, it was discovered that Melville, N.Y.-based “Adele Services” hit millions of credit card holders with a tiny, fraudulent 25-ish cent charge. The mysterious fees were never authorized, and nobody seems to know where they came from.

For that matter, nobody seems to know where Adele Services came from, either – or why the company has any business charging people in the first place. According to the Boston Globe, Adele doesn’t even exist – there is no company with that name in Melville, nor the entire state of New York.

Most suspect this so-called Adele Services of doing one of two things: testing the waters on a batch of pilfered credit cards, or attempting to steal a large amount of money by nickel-and-diming individual accounts. 25 cents is so small an amount that it escapes the notice of people reviewing their statements, and even then the payoff for contesting that kind of charge is simply not worth most folks’ time.

Enter, stage left: the online finance wunderkind is trusted with aggregating the bank account information of perhaps millions of users, and may just be one of the only entities in the world who can look at Adele’s actions from a birds-eye view even higher than most banks. So what does it do? Sends out e-mail notices warning everyone with Adele charges appearing in their Mint account.

Observers lauded Mint’s proactivity as a helpful gesture, and bloggers everywhere seem to be praising the company for keeping them safe.

“Yesterday I got an email that has made me an even more loyal customer,” writes Fast Company’s Anya Kamenetz. “I would never have taken the time to check for this charge on my own. Some have raised privacy issues … but in a situation like this one I'm glad to have someone looking over my shoulder.”

The privacy issues are indeed pertinent, but I think – much like everyone else – that the alternative would have been less desirable. Should Mint have stood idly by?

Many have asked: do we really want people rifling through our purchase records? Part of the problem with this “privacy violation” is a matter of perception: what did (peruse through its account database to look for a named charge) probably involved little human intervention. How easy is it to search a database then dump the results into an automated e-mail server? Very.

In the end, I’m having trouble finding reasons to don the tinfoil hat – and this is from a privacy nut that gets paranoid when filling out W-9s and direct deposit forms. users made the conscious choice of handing over their account information when they signed up, and as safekeepers of that data Mint found itself in a unique ethical dilemma. Handled correctly, there really was no wrong answer – it’s unlikely that people would have made a stink if Mint had simply not acted – but being that they already mine users’ data to pay the bills (check the “Ways to Save” tab), sending helpful warnings should almost be par for the course.

It will be interesting to see what other events they might choose to warn us about in the future.

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