Seattle Animal Control Accessing Grocery Purchase Data Looking for Evidence of Unlicensed Pets

This is going to end up in some very bad places.


matsuyuki / CC BY-SA

It's possible to make a libertarian argument in favor of municipal-provided animal control services. Feral dogs, at the very least, present a concrete threat to public safety and have been known to injure and even kill people.

But even if a small government case were made for animal control, what actually happens is that these municipal agencies end up expanding far beyond the public safety purposes for which they were created and take on a bureaucratic life of their own. Go figure! Pet licenses aren't just for covering the bureaucratic costs of making sure animal owners can be held responsible for their pet's behavior. They're revenue generators. Cities and counties want the money for things like fancy, expensive animal shelters and the staff needed to operate them. The public often supports the idea of these shelters because people hate seeing animals suffer, and they associate big shelters with more space, and therefore the likelihood of fewer animals being put to sleep.

But citizens aren't exactly putting up the money to pay for it, and in reality, many pet owners do not comply with licensing laws. Obviously, this does not mean that these owners are not taking care of their pets; they're making sure the animals are getting vaccinated and are otherwise not presenting a public safety threat to their communities. It just means that municipal governments are missing out on millions of dollars that they think they're entitled to.

All that leads us to King County, Washington (home of Seattle). The county's animal services recently sent out loads of threatening letters to pet-owning residents, warning them that failing to get their pets properly licensed could lead to $250 fines. The county was going extract money from them either way.

But how did the county know who owned pets if they weren't licensed? It turns out they got their mitts on direct mail lists from stores that tracked customer purchasing habits through membership cards and the like. For the stores and the private retail environment, they're tools to more directly market consumers with goods they may want or need. In the hands of government, it becomes a lot more sinister. A woman who no longer owned a pet received one of these threatening letters and wondered what was going on. The media picked up the story. From the Seattle Times:

The county hired a Seattle mailing company named Lacy & Par, which retrieved a list of prospective pet owners from another data firm.

The county took that list of possible pet owners, compared it against an internal database of licensed pets, and — voilà! — had a list of Fido lovers who might be stiffing the county. Out went the letters.

These lists, though, could be complete crap, given that the example that triggered the story was about a woman who owned no pets receiving a letter. It seems likely that this method sent the letter to tons of people who did not own pets and likely missed any number of residents who do own pets that are not licensed.

The Times reporting suggests that there's probably not going to be an enforcement follow-up. That is to say, animal control officials aren't going to be showing up on these people's doorsteps to spot check whether they've got unlicensed pets. They were hoping to scare citizens into complying, and a few apparently did.

This example, though, could be another camel poking another nose under the citizen privacy tent to take a big sniff. We have many, many other examples of municipal government collecting citizen data for petty policing purposes and then misusing it in broad, judgmental fashion like this. Consider cities where police collect license plate numbers of vehicles in areas where prostitutes are known to frequent and then sending threatening letters to the homes connected to those cars. Do they know whether those drivers were consorting with prostitutes? Nope. Do these letters have the major potential to interfere with the recipient's family life? Absolutely. (And that's not even getting into whether it's any of the city's business anyway.)

The Times' editorial board very quickly put together a commentary objecting to this government trolling of marketing data because of potential bigger issues besides figuring out who owns pets:

Wait! The government is contacting people who buy pet food to say they are suspected pet-license scofflaws? What's next? A letter from the health department noting purchases of ice cream and potato chips?

Let's make it a little less vague: How about a threatening letter from Child Protective Services noting that your grocery purchases suggest you are not feeding your kids with foods the government deems the most healthy, and if you don't change your behavior, you may have a little visit? It's not an absurd idea, given we're seeing food nannies in the school system meddling with lunches parents are providing to their kids.

As is typical in cases like this, there's going to be a chunk of people who think the problem is due to retailers and marketers collecting our information. That's not the problem. All those people are going to do is try to sell us stuff. The problem is on the government end. It is the government officials who decided they should use our private consumer data to try to extract money from citizens through threats of force.

Read more about the letter "campaign" here.