Free coffee for your personal data? Cafe expands to Mass. college campuses

Trading personal information for a free coffee or tea? A Japanese company opening cafes around New England is making that offer to its customers -- college students -- and so far, business has been very brisk at the Shiru Cafe.

The chain's first store is in Providence, near Brown University, and plans to open locations in Amherst later in November, and one in the Harvard Square area this winter, are in the works.

Solomon Boukman, a freshman at Brown, was suspicious of the offer when he first heard about it. "I thought it was too good to be true, honestly. There can’t be free coffee. There has to be some catch to it,” he said.

Whether there's a catch depends upon a college student's comfort level disclosing personal information.

To get those free beverages, a college student must fill out a profile on Shiru's website and supply personal information, like an email address, which college they attend, and their major, for example.

If business is any indication, it appears today’s college students don’t mind parting personal information "I think that that’s something in this time and age that is kind of normalized to an extent," said Brown student Nick Lawrence.

Another student agreed. "I feel like with social media now, everything is just out there, so it’s not anything that’s foreign to us," Tina Tran added.

The student data they collect is shared with the cafe's sponsors, said Keith Maher, Shiru's North American general manager. "The sponsors could be looking for a lot of things. It’s a great environment for recruiting top talent at universities all over the Northeast, so companies are able to come into the cafe and meet with students, as well as advertise in the cafe on the screens and on our cups."

David Gerzof Richard, who teaches marketing and communications at Emerson College, said he tells his students to be mindful of what information they are giving up. "Whether its Facebook or Twitter, anything that you’re getting for free, it’s really not free because you’re giving up your data. You’re giving up privacy. You’re letting a company know a lot about your likes and behaviors, and you’re giving them the ability to market to you."

Richard points out college students are generally less concerned about protecting personal information than their parents. He believes if Shiru follows through on promises to develop job opportunities, it could be a good deal for young people.

"One of the hardest jobs to get is your first job out of college," said Richard. "If you can have a platform where you can go and get a cup of coffee and find job opportunities, that's a win-win for a college student."