let’s get our free lattes!

reporting from shiru café

My mother always told me not to give my personal information to strangers. Especially strangers that offer me food.

Who knew that after sixteen years of carefully following her advice, I’d give it all up for a latte.

The latest in a chain of Shiru Café opened in Providence last month. Their mission statement is simple: “To create a place where students can learn about the professional world and envision their future careers.” With nearly 28 stores, Shiru Café went global when they expanded from their home in Japan to India. They boast great success at India’s IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and are described by students there as the “coolest and best place…to chill out with friends.”

Curious to discover what was inside the new store that had replaced Growler’s Wing Bar, I found myself entering the brightly lit, spacious store filled with smiling students. The process was simple: I had to create an account on the website, select my drink, scan my QR code and voila, my free drink would arrive, prepared by fellow Brown students.

I feel like I’m in a parallel universe,” my friend whispered. We slowly filled out the questionnaire listed on the website, providing a plethora of personal information, including our names, ages, class years, ID numbers, and concentration. I couldn’t shake the uneasiness I felt as everyone around me nonchalantly filled out the survey. I feel like I’m selling my soul by telling them everything about me,” I confessed to my friend. What corporation in the world offers free drinks, connects students with companies both in person and via email and asks for nothing in return? Shiru Café is a business and we are its products; our information is the currency we use to pay for a free latte every two hours.

As intrusive as that sounds, the darker reality is that I probably sold my soul long before I entered Shiru Café. Today, our personal information is often used as currency. Our right to privacy, although referenced by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, is no longer inalienable, but a commodity to be bartered and sold. Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple use our data to generate revenue of up to $40 billion each year. By attracting individuals with the promise of social networking, technology, or services, corporations gain access to their greatest asset—you.

I was curious to gather the thoughts of Post- staffers on Shiru Cafe and recorded the following opinions:

“I think unlimited coffee is dangerous on many levels”—Katherine Luo

“No one knows what Shiru Café is or why it’s here, but let’s enjoy it while we can, because when life hands you free drinks, you drink them.”—Zander Kim

“Wow, they have a lot of outlets but their hot chocolate is not very good.”—Alicia DeVos

It is interesting to note that no one to my knowledge has been the recipient of any company outreach since the cafe opened a month ago. While Microsoft, Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers are listed as sponsors, we have yet to see company logos on the cups, meet individuals from sponsor companies, or receive information on potential job opportunities. How then, is Shiru Café making profit and what are they doing with our information if we haven’t received the services promised?

In the coming months, Shiru Café will continue to expand across North America to other elite colleges, Amherst, Yale, Harvard and Princeton among them. I have no doubt they will gain access to data that most students wouldn’t readily disclose to strangers. But if my conversations with my best friend, the links I click on, and the photos I like are all floating somewhere on the interweb, why not get a free latte?

Sorry mom.