It looked like a marketing bull’s-eye for the Kittery Trading Post. But then it backfired.

“We sincerely apologize for any privacy concern or distress this may have caused and hope that you will allow us the opportunity to regain your trust and confidence in the future,” Kittery Trading Post President Kevin Adams and co-owner Kim Adams said Monday in a mass mea culpa to more than 100,000 “customers” of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The reason for the outdoor retailers’ contrition?

They bought the department’s e-mail list.

It was all perfectly legal. Some would even call it shrewd. But in an era when e-mail addresses fast are becoming our virtual front doors, the Kittery Trading Post learned the hard way that you’d best have an invitation before you come knocking.

A little background:

Last year, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine asked the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for the e-mail addresses of anyone and everyone who has gone online to buy hunting and/or fishing licenses via the department’s Maine Online Sportsman Electronic System (also known as MOSES).

SAM contended that the MOSES e-mail list, a high-value recruitment tool if ever there was one, is a public record under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. IFW disagreed and went to the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion.

SAM won. In January, the organization paid the state $1,500 for the list – prompting some to worry that the same data inevitably would be sold not just to politically savvy groups like the sportsman’s alliance, but also to retailers who look at this rich pile of lifestyle-specific data and see a can’t-miss sales portal.

“That’s exactly what we thought,” said Fox Keim, vice president of the Kittery Trading Post, in an interview Monday.

They thought wrong – thanks in large part to a little pre-emptive damage control by IFW.

Contacted this week, spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said the department decided last winter that if it had to release its e-mail list to the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, it would also notify those on the list via e-mail that their addresses had been released. Later, in a statement on its website, IFW identified the recipient as Sam. The response was swift – and universally negative.

Put simply, Turcotte said, “many people told us they did not expect that their e-mail address would be shared with others.”

This time, IFW opted for immediate full disclosure: At the same time the department turned over the requested data to the Kittery Trading Post, it fired off e-mails to all 100,000-plus people on the list alerting them that their addresses were in the store’s possession.

“The Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) is a law that requires a state agency to provide public records to anyone upon request,” the e-mail explained. “We apologize in advance for any issues the release of this list may cause you.”

Smart move. The Kittery Trading Post (as opposed to IFW) soon found itself in full retreat under a barrage of complaints from Maine residents and non-residents alike who never thought when they logged onto MOSES that they’d be fair game for a hunting-and-fishing outfitter.

By the end of business Monday, in fact, the Kittery Trading Post had hot-potatoed the unused list back to IFW. And, in an e-mail to those on it, its co-owners wisely took the hit for their unwitting faux pas.

“We viewed this as a potential opportunity to reach out to outdoor enthusiasts that may or may not be familiar with our store and we did not at any time strong-arm, coerce or pressure for the acquisition of this list,” explained the statement on the store’s website. “However, we are aware that this purchase has caused concern from our current and potential customer base.”

That would be folks like Steve Marchessault, a University of Maine junior from Waterboro who bought a fishing license online last year. He said he was surprised at the sale of his address to the Kittery Trading Post and appreciative of the heads-up from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“I’d be interested to know the purpose of this Freedom of Access Act – I’m sure it’s not to provide e-mail lists to businesses,” Marchessault said. “That’s the troubling part – it’s legal, but I’m not OK with it.”

Nor is he alone.

Minaxi Gupta, an associate professor with Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, sees a growing sense of helplessness among citizens (read: consumers) who believe, with increasing justification, that what they once thought was private information is no longer.

(Case in point: Shortly after becoming pregnant awhile back, Gupta logged onto Google. Based solely on her Internet activity, she said, “Google already knew I was pregnant.”)

“I’m not arguing against the public nature of this information,” Gupta said. But, she added, “what you’re going to use this information for is what should dictate whether someone should be allowed to have it or not.”

Last year, Gupta co-authored a paper titled “Spamology: A Study of Spam Origins.” It found that “even a single exposure of an e-mail address (on the Internet) can result in immediate and high-volume spam campaigns.”

“If I am a consumer, the fact that a retailer now has my e-mail address (via the state government) and can now send me spam or what they call promotions or advertisements – that makes me furious,” Gupta said. “Because that’s just more spam in my mailbox.”

And for now, alas, the only legal way to stop it is to opt off IFW’s e-mail list before the next buyer comes along.

State Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield, tried in the spring to add e-mail addresses to Social Security numbers as personal information not subject to Freedom of Access requests. The proposal never made it past the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Bryant said privacy-conscious consumers’ only hope at this point is that other retailers will see what happened to the Kittery Trading Post and think twice before using MOSES and Maine’s Freedom of Access Act to boost their market penetration.

“In the United States, there are a lot of things you can do – but you don’t do,” Bryant said. “I’m surprised (the Kittery Trading Post) even treaded in that water.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]