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Supermarket cards
threat to privacy?

Posted By Jon Dougherty On 02/02/2002 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled

Privacy advocates say a wealth of data is being collected by supermarkets via electronic shopper cards and that the information could be linked with other biometric technology to form in-depth personal databases without a person’s permission or knowledge.

In addition, say some card experts, food store chains that employ e-cards as a savings benefit to shoppers may actually be inflating regular prices before applying shopper card “discounts,” thus negating any real savings.

Katherine Albrecht, executive director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, or CASPIAN, says first and foremost that there is nothing “benign” about emerging shopper card programs and technologies.

“There are some long-term, potentially creepy consequences of allowing [supermarkets] to collect data on people,” she told WorldNetDaily.

“Some of the more obvious short-term privacy concerns are that the information is subpoenaed and used against people in court,” she said. “There was even a story recently saying the FBI was trying to profile the Sept. 11 terrorists on the basis of their shopper card records.”

“This idea of actually being profiled as a result of our shopping records is a scary proposition,” said Albrecht, who holds a Master’s degree in education from Harvard.

Carolyn Mahoney Lopez, director of media for Catalina Marketing Corporation – a company that collects and analyzes shopper data – told WorldNetDaily her firm’s participation in shopper card programs is innocuous.

“Catalina Marketing provides customized offers and relevant coupons to customers by using actual purchase data. By providing offers that are based on what shoppers typically purchase, we are able to provide more value than with traditional mass-delivered coupons,” she said.

“However, it is important to note that we only track by the UPC number and frequent shopper card number, not by any personally identifiable information such as name, address or other demographic information,” Lopez said. “Our system only tracks the numbers and delivers promotions when those numbers are scanned.”

She said the company tracks purchase data in two ways. First, “on a transactional level, we can deliver a promotion based on what has come across the scanner. For example, if a UPC for baby food is scanned, we can deliver a coupon for diapers.”

On a “historical level,” she continued, “we can track purchases over time, which involves the use of frequent shopper cards. This allows us to deliver promotions based on purchase preferences, such as low-fat items, complementary items, and so on.

“Our retail partners who offer frequent shopper cards obviously have personally identifiable information, such as the name and address that the customer voluntarily provided to participate in the program,” Lopez said. “However, they do not sell or share that information with anyone unless they have the customer’s permission.”

Phantom savings

Perhaps one of the most egregious aspects of shopper cards, according to Albrecht, is the notion put forth by supermarkets and other retailers that cardholders are somehow entitled to special savings deals.

In reality, Albrecht says, most of those programs are little more than ploys to get shoppers to use the cards and, hence, allow the retailers to collect personal data.

In a recent consumer study involving a Bloomington, Ind., Kroger’s supermarket, the store’s published advertising circulars were collected for four consecutive weeks prior to launching the e-card, and another six weeks after the card was launched.

The results were stunning, CASPIAN said. While the e-card was heralded as a way to save shoppers money, most of the tracked items – 52 of 89 – were unchanged in price, while a majority of the remainder, 24 items, were actually priced higher. Only 13 tracked items fell in price as a result of e-card use.

Yet, according to the Roanoke (Va.) Times newspaper Nov. 9, Kroger spokesman Archie Fralin promised that overall, e-card users would save money.

Fralin told the paper that the store regularly advertised 90 to 150 better-selling items at sale prices every week. He explained that the number of items on sale wouldn’t increase, except during the card’s introductory period, but said certain prices will be lower than ever. Plus, the deeper discounts were supposed to continue after the introductory period, the paper quoted him as saying.

The chain also assured cardholders that information obtained via e-card usage would be kept private and not sold or given away to other entities.

In a separate consumer study in the San Francisco Bay area, three local supermarkets – Food 4 Less, Safeway and Lucky – were compared. CASPIAN’s Albrecht said two of the stores – Safeway and Lucky – had e-card programs; Food 4 Less did not.

In a survey of 41 items, all of which could be found at each of the stores, the group found that Food 4 Less products were 38 percent less than Safeway’s “no card” price, while Lucky’s prices were 37 percent higher. The “card” prices in both program stores were still about 20 percent higher than Food 4 Less, Albrecht said.

“Granted, Food 4 Less is not an ‘upscale’ market, and I do have to bag my own groceries. But once I get it home, their Yoplait yogurt tastes just as good as Safeway’s or Lucky’s,” she said.

What’s the big deal?

CASPIAN says the thing it hears most from nonplussed consumers who use the cards is this: “What’s the big deal? I’m not doing anything wrong or buying anything illegal.”

But that’s the wrong way to look at it, says Albrecht, because that’s not really what the card programs are about.

“I could say the same thing about tapping your phone – ‘Who cares if they know what you say to your friends?’” she said. “How about putting a tracking device in your car? ‘Who cares if they know where you go?’ Heck, why not let them install a camera in your shower? ‘Who cares if they know what you look like naked?’

“The point is that there are many, many things that nobody’s got any business knowing about anybody else. That’s called privacy – the right to an unfettered, unmonitored personal life which is not subject to the scrutiny of others,” she said.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, however, the demand for more “protection” in the form of biometric identifiers and other means of electronic surveillance has increased substantially.

“Prominent among the various measures being considered are the use of devices that check a person’s identity using biometric identifiers such as fingerprints, retina or facial patterns,” says the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest research group.

“There are significant privacy and civil-liberties concerns regarding the use of such devices that must be addressed before any widespread deployment,” said the group.

Specifically, EPIC wants to know how the data is to be stored – whether centrally or dispersed – and how the data scanned should be retained. Also, the group says its important to know how vulnerable that data will be to theft and abuse.

And, EPIC says, the public should be concerned about how foolproof the technology will be – how much of an error factor in the technologies’ authentication process is acceptable, as well as the implications of false positives and false negatives created by a machine.

Also, issues of data authenticity should be examined, as well as whether the data gathered will be linked with other data to form profiles and the full implications of “having an electronic trail of our every movement. …”

Informational abuse?

Albrecht and others worry about plans afoot to utilize information being collected by supermarkets for other life-managing purposes.

“It’s not far in the future when all this information is going to fall into the hands of, say, insurance corporations,” she said. “Software programs already exist and are in place to take this shopping information and link it up with particular diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.”

She says the insurance companies will then “evaluate how well” people shop “in relation to what your health concerns are.”

The implications are clear, she says. “Insurance companies will use this information against you when making decisions about your policy.”

Others agree.

Americans are under “wholesale attacks from overly zealous law enforcement officials determined to have access to telephone conversation, e-mail or other electronic communication,” says the American Civil Liberties Union.

Besides government, people face privacy assaults “from private sector interests that want access to intimate information about you, including your medical records, either for commercial purposes or to challenge your insurance eligibility or employment suitability,” the ACLU says.

Indeed, advances in information technology, while beneficial to improving daily life, have also proven to be a boon for government and private entities. And in each case of informational abuse, the cause of defending privacy seems to be increasingly a losing proposition.

Among the abuses documented recently by the ACLU:

  • A Maryland banker improperly accessed the medical records of bank customers to see who had been diagnosed with cancer. Armed with this information, the bank immediately foreclosed on their loans.

  • A recent University of Illinois study found that 35 percent of all Fortune 500 companies consult medical records before they hire or promote an employee.

  • A 1997 survey by the American Management Association found that as many as 10 percent of 6,000 companies used genetic testing for employment purposes.

  • The Council for Responsible Genetics, an advocacy group in Massachusetts, has documented hundreds of cases in which healthy people have been denied insurance or a job based on genetic “predictions.”

Orwellian predictions aside, many experts and ordinary citizens alike believe such schemes like shopper cards and electronic data retention are thinly veiled plans to exert more control over a population used to freedom and independence.

“The food business is far and away the most important business in the world,” Dwayne Andreas, CEO of Archer-Daniels-Midland, one of the nation’s largest food conglomerates, told Reuters in 1999. “Everything else is a luxury. Food is what you need to sustain life every day. Food is fuel. You can’t run a tractor without fuel, and you can’t run a human being without it either. Food is the absolute beginning.”

In terms of guiding discussion about such technological changes, “it is almost heresy to ask if these changes are what the people of our country really want or, if they are not what is desired, how we might redirect the change,” says William Heffernan, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri.

“These changes are the result of notoriously short-sighted market forces and not the result of public dialogue, the foundation of a democracy. Neither are the changes the result of some mystical figure or an ‘invisible hand,’” he told CounterPunch magazine.

“The potential for abuse of all this information is enormous,” Albrecht concluded.


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