Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Your supermarket is spying on you and other shocking news

It’s easy to forget that we already live in a dystopian future. The breadcrumbs of personal data we scatter around us wherever we go are already being collected, aggregated and analysed to an extent where harmful privacy breaches are practically inevitable.

We’re under surveillance everywhere we go, including during our weekly supermarket shop. Surveillance in supermarkets is nothing new. For decades they’ve offered store cards which collect detailed information about your purchasing habits in exchange for (frankly insulting) incentives. The data collected includes when and where you shop, what things you routinely buy, when you tend to buy extravagant things, how likely you are to take advantage of special offers and much more. It is used to come to surprisingly complex (and often accurate) conclusions about you, your family, your lifestyle and your family’s lifestyle. With schemes such as Nectar in the UK, even more data is collected and more valuable conclusions drawn, because data is collected from a wide variety of shops of different kinds, moreso if you also have a Nectar credit card.

Many people feel that this information is a fair price for the incentives offered. Privacy activists like me disagree…. but that isn’t the point isn’t the point I’m making here. The point I’m making is that surveillance via store card is the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of other very creepy things supermarkets routinely do and more that will surely appear in the near future.

With online shopping, supermarkets are able to track the items you buy, the ones you look at but don’t buy and the ones you buy instead. In physical stores, this has not been possible until recently. Nowadays, supermarkets can and do track your movements around their physical stores. If you (like most people) leave your phone’s wifi turned on when you visit the supermarket, then the store can track your movements, even if you don’t connect to the store wifi. From this, it can build a very intimate picture of your shopping habits. For example, it can determine how long you stare at a shelf of near-identical brands of washing powder before deciding which to buy and can compare that with your past behaviour. How easily are you affected by the specific placement of certain items? Can you be manipulated into buying the one with the highest profit margin? It can note the things people always forget to buy as they walk around the store and have to go back for. Are there trends in this data that can manipulate customers into buying things they don’t really want? Could the supermarket put a shelf with the things everyone forgets right at the far end of the supermarket, but put only the brands with the highest profit margins on that shelf?

With data like this, already being collected by supermarkets, coupled with eventual buying choices and place/time data collected by use of a store card, supermarkets can build a very intimate picture of what their customers buy and how they make buying decisions. This is not data you’d want to fall into the wrong – or even the ‘right’ - hands. And it’s set to get worse. Trials are already being carried out on various means of monitoring shelves so that data can be collected about which items a customer picks up but doesn’t eventually buy and which items they most closely scrutinise (and then whether that’s the one they buy). There are also trials being carried out on automatic expression recognition via CCTV. What are you thinking when you look at a product or display? Pleased? Excited? Disgusted? Bored? Confused? Will supermarkets also start to use automatic facial recognition to track those of us who turn our wifi off and pay in cash? I don’t see why not.

Data like this is used to create profiles of customers, to optimise displays, shelving and pricing and to offer customer incentives such as sales and coupons. It’s up to individual customers to decide whether they think this is creepy and manipulative or genuinely useful, but it’s not up to customers whether they are tracked in the first place.

The data is very valuable, of course, and will not be used only to decide where to put the baked beans. It (or subsets of it) will be sold to other companies, which will aggregate it with the things they know about us. And it will be stolen by people who want to use it to also steal our identities. It will be used to draw possibly false conclusions about us, which might haunt us in the future. If you don’t look sufficiently concerned when putting high value items into your trolley, will you be considered poor credit risk by a completely different company in the future? Will health insurance companies count how many doughnuts you bought and look at your waist size as calculated from CCTV footage over time to decide whether to pay for your heart attack? I’m being flippant, but I don’t think these are particularly unrealistic scenarios.

Store cards are all very well. I don’t have one but I don’t look down on anyone who does. For them, the trade-off between privacy and money-off coupons is worth it. I’d argue with them that the trade-off only seems worth it because they probably don’t understand how their data is being used and misused, but that’s OK too; taking the time and effort to understand these things is a cost many people don’t think is worth paying. It’s up to them. They’re helping – like parents refusing to vaccinate their children – to create an environment that’s more dangerous for everyone else, but I think we have a little way to go yet before most people really start to see the downside of this abandonment of privacy. I’m not saying I won’t gloat when they do, but I understand why it’s difficult to take privacy seriously when it comes at the expense of convenience.

But while store cards are opt-in, the other surveillance methods employed by supermarkets are not. If I have to turn off my phone wifi, pay with cash in unordered notes and wear a disguise to the supermarket, then I can’t honestly say I’ve been given a realistic opportunity to opt out.

But I can’t end on a negative note. I think there are some excellent uses for store cards and supermarket tracking. Here’s my suggestion:


Your store card is issued 100 points when you enter the supermarket, to be redeemed upon checkout. This number ticks down the longer you are in the store and ticks down even faster whenever you stand still. That way, perhaps everyone in the supermarket will finally get out of my fucking way.