of course, it aint just the government snooping on us:
But Katherine Albrecht, director of the US-based Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering, or Caspian (nocards.org), says that the danger lies in legal or political bodies overriding the stores' privacy agreements. "The data that supermarkets have quietly collected for nearly a decade has become a tempting target for busybodies of all stripes," she says. According to Albrecht, loyalty card details have already been used in personal injury and family law cases in the US. In one instance, a man's card-tracked purchase of expensive wine was used as evidence in a divorce case to show that he could afford to pay more alimony. In another, a supermarket proposed to use till receipts to prove that a man who sued after tripping over a yogurt spill in its store was an alcoholic. Data protection laws allow for such information to be disclosed if a court requests it.
Most disturbing is the prospect of ethnic profiling. After the September 11 attacks, reports Albrecht, "Federal agents reviewed the shopper card records of the men involved to create a profile of ethnic tastes and supermarket shopping patterns associated with terrorism." So anyone who likes hummus, say, may well be developing the shopper profile of a terrorist. While there is an assumption that, in the UK, there exists an invisible line that would not get crossed in this manner, the concern in any data protection context is over "function creep": "An information system set up for one reason can end up being used for other things," says Simon Davies of Privacy International, a human rights group set up to monitor surveillance by governments and corporations.
More significant in relation to privacy, however, is the onset of a new form of monitoring, one being tested right now in UK stores, as Albrecht revealed to the Guardian. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), a form of electronic tagging using wireless technology, was pioneered in the US at the Auto-ID Centre in Boston, a partnership of around 100 global companies. Big grocers such as Wal-Mart (which owns Asda) and Tesco, as well as brands such as Nestlé, Pepsi and Kellogg's, are partners of the centre, as, incidentally, is the US department of defence.
RFID is a tracking system that uses a chip around the size of a speck of dust joined to an antenna. The chip is embedded into a product and can then talk to a hand-held scanning device, currently at a range of 1-20ft. The conversation between chip and scanner reveals the item's "electronic product code", similar to a barcode, except that in this case the information is unique to the item.
Each product code links to its own internet database entry, which can be retrieved by the scanner - so anyone with access to both can establish what and where that product is. The ultimate goal is to assign a unique number to every product on the planet, allowing for what the Auto-ID Centre describes as a "physically linked world". In this world, everything will be tracked and identified. The main obstacle to this vision is financial - the centre is working to bring down the cost of the tags from 50 cents to five cents apiece, or less.
But if the ultimate idea is to tag every sold thing, items could be "seen" in your possession. And that's where privacy campaigners start to worry. Because then you could be telling anyone who has the right kind of scanning device - from burglars to the government - what you have bought, where from, how much it cost, and anything else that might be added to an item's database entry, such as who bought it. In this scenario, individuals could be identified by what they wear. On top of which, retailers could monitor your behaviour in relation to their goods. Did you try on a garment? How long did you hold that product? Are you trying to steal? Now does that sound a bit like surveillance? Now would it worry you if this technology were already being used at several of your favourite stores?