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Dark side of supermarket 'savings cards'

Posted By Jon Dougherty On 06/23/2002 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled

The supermarket chain store Albertsons is planning to roll out new “preferred savings cards” for customers, despite concerns of some shoppers and privacy advocates.

According to a company memo obtained by WND, the program is slated to begin Wednesday in stores located in Utah, Wyoming, northern Nevada, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota – areas that, says one privacy analyst, traditionally dislike programs that require consumers to surrender personal information to companies that maintain it in electronic databases.

The program is being offered “to increase the value for customers and build a long-term customer relationship,” the memo said.

Consumer privacy advocate Katherine Albrecht, head of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, or CASPIAN, a group opposed to grocery store electronic savings cards, says even though the programs are voluntary, they are not benign.

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

“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.”

Also, she said there was evidence some of the programs really didn’t save consumers money, as well as cases where consumers that didn’t want to surrender private data to supermarkets were punished by being charged higher prices.

“This idea of actually being profiled as a result of our shopping records is a scary proposition,” said Albrecht.

Albertsons could not be reached for comment, but according to the memo, part of the company’s marketing plan is offering to donate a quarter to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation – up to $100,000 – “for every customer who signs up” for the electronic savings card.

In an interview earlier this year, Carolyn Mahoney Lopez, director of media for the Catalina Marketing Corporation, a company that collects and analyzes shopper data, said her firm’s participation in such programs is harmless.

Catalina “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,” said Lopez. “Our system only tracks the numbers and delivers promotions when those numbers are scanned.”

“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,” she said, but added that they don’t sell or otherwise share the information.

Albrecht says such positions miss the real point.

“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.

“How about putting a tracking device in your car? Who cares if they know where you go?” said Albrecht. “Heck, why not let them install a camera in your shower?”

Albrecht believes such information will eventually be sold or given to insurance companies and others who could then be in a position to make a decision about other aspects of providing consumer services, perhaps to the detriment of some consumers.

“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.”

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

Related story:

Supermarket cards threat to privacy?


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