Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
So your local supermarket is introducing a new shopper savings e-card program, and in order to take advantage of the purported savings, you opt to register for it.
But you don’t want your grocer – or, more accurately, your grocer’s corporate office – to “track” your purchases and gather personal information about you and your family. So, to throw the corporate snoops off-track, you decide to register for the program because you want the advertised savings, but you do it under a fake name.
Problem solved, right?
Wrong, according to noted electronic privacy experts who spoke this week to WorldNetDaily.
While some stores currently allow participants to enroll with false identification, others don’t. And, the experts agree that the trend is moving toward requirement of real information because such data is lucrative. Failure to participate “voluntarily” could result in higher grocery bills.
Additionally, WND reported that some studies have shown many shopper card programs don’t really save participants money. That’s because some stores ratchet up prices they charge to “non-card holders,” while charging the cardholders the “lower” [original] price. Then they call the price difference a “savings plan.”
And therein lies the rub. Eventually, stores – in the name of “efficiency” – may overtly charge consumers who don’t want an e-card more for the same products. That will mean that most people will opt in the program in an effort to save money, but will have to provide personal data to do so.
Nevertheless, many consumers say they aren’t worried about the programs becoming too invasive, and they doubted the veracity of the claim that someday, just to participate, consumers will be required to provide genuine information about themselves.
But according to Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, supermarkets eventually will require real information, because the real money in these programs lies in the collection of personal data.
“Already, there is an enormous thirst for any aspect of consumer data,” he told WorldNetDaily. “You can go to any conference on what they call ‘Customer Relations Management,’ and they’ll tell you, ‘Collect any and all information you can, because someday it may be useful.’”
If information consumers are providing “is so sensitive that you want a policy to assure you that it won’t be given out to strangers, why in the name of heaven would you voluntarily provide it to the strangers running your supermarket’s database?” she said.
Hoofnagle said current databases “know everything” about people.
“Companies that collect information” from places like supermarkets “know about your religion, what books you read, how much education you have, your income and even your health condition, based on your supermarket shopping habits,” he said. “Literally, to buy adult diapers, you can be marked by these consumer information collection groups as someone who has a bladder-control problem.”
And if that information is sold to, say, your insurance company, there is nothing to prevent you from being adjudged a higher health risk and having your premiums adjusted – upward – to reflect that increased risk,” the privacy experts said.
But so far the programs are all voluntary, the critics counter. Consumers can join the shopper e-card savings programs, or they don’t have to.
True, says Albrecht, and the income tax is “voluntary,” too. But just try opting out.
“Once you begin participating in a program, opting out is going to cost you a lot more money,” she said. “I don’t care how much your supermarket talks about sweetness and rewards, if you don’t comply ‘voluntarily’ this is their weapon, and they’ll turn it on you.”
Prices charged to non-cardholders will be substantially more than prices to cardholders, she explained. Once the stores have consumers “hooked on the cheaper cardholder prices,” what’s to stop them from implementing a new card system that requires accurate personal information?
“Consider the implications of that for a moment and you’ll see why it is so crucial that we put an end to these programs,” she said. “We’ve got to stop supermarkets from manipulating us into surrendering one of our most intimate possessions – the ability to make reasoned, non-coercive decisions about how and to whom to disclose intimate information about ourselves.”
For those reasons, and others, Albrecht says taking advantage of the shopper e-card programs by using a fake name or phony information is a pointless endeavor that does nothing to address the problem – invasion of privacy.
“On the surface, they seem like fine ideas. In fact, I used to carry around a wallet full of ‘fake name’ grocery discount cards myself,” she said. But “it’s a selfish solution. It acknowledges that there is a problem, but leaves the problem for the next person to solve – or more unconscionably, for the next generation to solve.”
Why should Americans think that current, allegedly benign, shopper card programs will progress into full-blown invasions of privacy?
For one thing, says Hoofnagle, there are no legislative restrictions on the collection and dissemination – by resale especially – of consumer data. Also, he added, because profits are king.
“Information linked to identity is more lucrative for businesses,” he said, “because it’s a personally identifiable profile that can then be used for secondary purposes, like telemarketing or direct mailing. These stores could sell this information or use it themselves.”
Once a profile is created, he said, “you can’t get rid of it.” Worse, “you may never even know it’s being used for other purposes because people don’t have a statutory right to block it.”
Albrecht says that continuing to use fake identification to register for cards may hasten more invasive card programs.
“If you were the IT (Information Technology) director of a supermarket chain that didn’t require [verifiable] ID, wouldn’t you be sorely tempted to start requiring ID after the thousandth fake record had to be thrown out of your database?” she said.