Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Rethinking my Ralphs [Supermarket] Clubcard

The article focuses exclusively on the U.K., and, indeed, Tesco. But the technology is the same on this side of the Atlantic.

Imagine you walk into a Tesco store wearing a jumper with an RFID chip woven into its fabric. Tesco knows who you are. Because you also use a store card, it knows exactly what you have bought on any given hour of any given day. It knows you only shop in the evenings, probably after work; so you will probably be tired, maybe more susceptible to offers. It knows you like chocolate. How long before the television is programmed to talk to you and sell you exactly what you are most ready to buy?

Is such a relationship between surveillance and shopping far-fetched? So great is supermarkets’ knowledge of their customers that, as Jessica Williams writes in her book 50 Facts That Should Change The World, they now know more about you than the government does. So, when the government looked to develop its proposed ID cards, who did it turn to for advice? Tesco.

Last year Tesco was secretly trialling RFID tags in Gillette shaving products in a store in Cambridge. A camera was placed above the shelf where the razors were, and everyone who picked up the products was photographed. Only a protest by members of the public outraged at this invasion of their privacy got the trial stopped.

Earlier this year shopper Lynn Pierce went to her local Tesco to buy some flowers for her mother’s grave, using her Tesco loyalty card when she paid. At home two days later she answered a knock at the door only to find the police standing on her doorstep. Someone monitoring Tesco’s in store CCTV had seen Mrs Pierce put her scarf into her handbag. Wrongly assuming she was shoplifting, Tesco found her home address from data stored in her loyalty card account. It was only when the police inspected the CCTV footage themselves and saw that she had entered the store wearing the scarf that the mistake was realised. ‘I’m disgusted that information from my store card was passed on to the police and used in this way,’ Pierce later told a reporter.

Some might not see the problem. ‘If supermarkets want to sell me things,’ you might think, ‘better if it is more tailored to what I actually buy. If they understand my shopping habits and respond to them more accurately, I’m more likely to get what I want.’ But what if your shopping habits happen to be the same as a terrorist’s? Would you also be happy to know that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks a grocery chain in the US voluntarily handed over all its loyalty card records to the FBI, without telling its customers? Apparently, the US authorities had reviewed loyalty card transactions made by the 9/11 hijackers and created a profile of the ideal terrorist’s shopping preferences. By comparing this pattern with the pattern of every shopper at the helpful grocery store they were able to see which shoppers were potential terrorists.

Lots more at the link above. And a nice riff on the entire concept of the "supermarket" can be found in The Spectator a few weeks ago. The link is here.