Shiru Café, a Japan-based chain with locations at Brown and others under construction at Yale and Amherst, could soon open in Princeton. Shiru offers coffee, refreshments, and pastries to students — for no charge. Students can drink free coffee and eat free pastries without spending any money. All they have to do to enjoy their tasty treats is submit private, personal information to the coffee shop.
At Shiru, customers fill out a “résumé” with their name, email address, major, class year, and professional interests or technical skills. Upon completing this “résumé,” students can then enjoy free coffee, refreshments, and space to work. The café makes money from its corporate sponsors, including Microsoft, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Japan Railways Group, Philip Morris Japan, and Mitsubishi Fuso, which receive data from the café that can be used to advertise to prospective hires. Shiru does not share identifying personal information with sponsor companies. Instead, it gives sponsors “aggregate data” about the students who frequent the shop en masse. Given this information, companies can decide how to promote or market themselves to students through targeted information campaigns or recruitment events held in the café.
For those of us concerned about personal privacy rights and data protection, the idea of a café where customers surrender private and personal information for a cup of coffee or a croissant is not only invasive but dystopian. While I am sure many will be drawn to the prospect of free coffee on Princeton’s campus, I must reject the idea because of its dangerous implications. Privacy must become a priority for our generation, which seems to remain passive or frighteningly ignorant of this invasion of individual rights. But it seems the case of Shiru Café is one more case of expediency over principles. To surrender information for coffee seems to me myopic. If we are willing to make decisions out of short-sighted convenience today, then what will be the implications of tomorrow?
This invasion of privacy has already become normalized on the internet. Every one of our searches on websites like Google and Amazon are recorded and categorized on databases of personal information, data that can be linked back to each of us based on our computer, phone, or tablet’s IP address. But while this truth can seem distant and unimportant for people who have nothing to hide while using the internet, we can see the effects of it in the now regular practice of individually targeted advertising. The sites we search and frequent and the topics we look up contribute to the advertisements we see. We make purchases and subscribe to publications based on our own personal trends.
This reality may again seem insignificant, but I can’t help but fear the dystopian destiny of this largely benign practice. Increasingly, our lives are becoming documented in databases with every search and purchase we make online. While today that information funnels targeted advertising to us for items to buy on Amazon, the future may not be so benign. I suspect the next iterations of this phenomenon will spell the individually targeted projection of news, current events, facts, and truth. This fate is inextricably linked to our complete willingness to not only allow for invasive privacy measures but also hand over our own personal data to corporations, websites, and companies — a virtual practice that could become reality at Shiru Café’s new Princeton location.
In a sense, this dystopian future has already come to pass. The alleged manipulation of Facebook profiles, events, and links by Russian operatives during the 2016 election included such things as targeted articles meant to foment certain feelings in supporters of both Clinton and Trump respectively, the creation of fake events meant to amass support or distrust of a certain candidate, and the circulation of news stories meant to spread false and unaccountable information. The age of targeting truth based on our personal information has become the reality. This sense of manipulated privacy would not have been possible 10 years ago.
There must be a stronger emphasis for our right to privacy both on the internet and in our day to day lives. The potential introduction of Shiru Café in Princeton frightens me because it inches towards the line between virtual and real in this invasion of personal privacy. Many will contend that the information required for the Shiru “résumé” is not any more sensitive that what can be found on TigerBook, LinkedIn, or Facebook for those who choose to have profiles. Sponsors of the café display their logo in the store, and baristas who serve coffee and pastries on the one hand are also employed to disseminate information about sponsor groups and hold events for company representatives to interact with students. In the time we live in, buying and drinking a cup of coffee has become not only an invasion of privacy but also a capitalistic act meant to ingrain in students the corporate system of society.
I will only ask those who seek to defend the pay-with-personal-information institution to observe the principles of the situation and imagine the dystopian turns this fun and trendy idea could spell in the near future. Shiru Café exposes a deep and carefree willingness of our generation to surrender essential privacy rights in exchange for expediency and ease. By acquiescing now to this invasion of privacy and personhood, students surrender an essential element of the defense of personal privacy. Before running blindly to the calls of free coffee and sweets, I would only ask my fellow students to think deeply about the principled choice at hand.
Kaveh Badrei is a junior Wilson School concentrator from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.