n/an/a Member Posts: 168,427
edited August 2002 in General Discussion
WASHINGTON - So you have a secret craving for Little Debbie peanut butter bars and a penchant for Kendall-Jackson merlot?

While that customer loyalty card at the supermarket might perceivably save you a few pennies at the checkout counter, your buying habits could end up in the hands of government agents.

According to one privacy expert, at least one national grocery chain voluntarily handed over to the government records from its customer loyalty card database in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And others say customer databases -- including those culled from travel, financial and insurance industries -- are routinely shared with the government for surveillance purposes.

"I think this is exactly what the FBI wants to do and there really isn't any obstacle to them doing it anymore," charged Lee Tien, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Thousands of supermarkets across the country have been offering loyalty cards to their customers for years. Some ask for basic information in their applications, like name, address and phone number. Others ask for more personal information, like Social Security numbers and e-mail addresses.

Each time the card is used, purchases are recorded in a massive database. In exchange, customers get discounts and special offers based on their buying preferences.

"It doesn't take a marketing genius to create an in-depth profile of someone that would be reasonably accurate just based on their purchasing history," said Donna Hoffman, a professor at Vanderbilt University and privacy expert with the campus' E-Lab.

"There has been a lot of discussion about profiling, but I think the concern over the government getting access to customer information is looming on the horizon," she added.

Larry Ponemon, CEO of the Privacy Council, said he was consulted for advice in January by an attorney for a national grocery chain, which in the wake of Sept. 11, had voluntarily delivered up its customer loyalty accounts to the federal government.

"It was not a malicious act, but it was more about feeling they had to do something to help the government look for the bad guys," said Ponemon, who could not reveal the name of the chain.

He said the attorney had since resigned from the chain and would not speak to the press. Despite his advice to the company, cardholders were never informed that their personal information had been shared with the government.

Noting that since the attacks a number of industries were persuaded to share their customer databases with law enforcement, Ponemon said he didn't know whether the practice continues.

"I think the issue is still happening, but probably more controlled than it was," he said.

Asked about such data sharing techniques, an official with the FBI simply said it would not divulge its surveillance methods.

"If we went into the discussion of whether we do or do not conduct that kind of activity, it could inform the wrong people of our surveillance techniques and jeopardize our investigations," the official said, on condition of anonymity. "So we are not going to get into that."

Right now, "data mining" companies all over the country exist to gather all of the information floating around in private databases and in the public domain to build profiles for everything from direct marketing campaigns to criminal background checks. Some of these companies count the federal government as a client.

Of course, some of this cultivation could be extremely helpful, especially when it comes to tracking down potential terrorists. Chuck Jones, a spokesman for ChoicePoint, a data maintenance service that boasts 14 billion public records in its databases and information on 220 million customers, including credit bureau documents and buyer demographics, would not confirm whether his company shares marketing databases with the government.

But, he said, such data sharing could have been helpful on Sept. 11.

Shane Ham, a senior policy analyst with the Progressive Policy Institute, said concerns over the feds wanting to seize upon customers' buying habits at the local grocery store are a bit exaggerated.

"I can't imagine what in the world the government would want with someone's grocery purchases unless they were on the trail of a specific person," he said. "They're not going to want to be flooded with information about who is going to be buying milk on what particular day. But I still recommend that consumers follow-up with what their supermarket is going to do with their information."

Jonathan Mayes, a spokesman for Safeway Inc., which operates almost 1,800 supermarkets across the country, said Safeway does not "sell or lease any personal identity information to any outside company."

He added that required by law, it is obligated to hand over information to law enforcement upon subpoenaed request, but Safeway would not give up its databases voluntarily.

Jim Harper, a privacy lawyer and head of Privacilla.org, said Americans should be warned that many private entities may be perfectly willing to share information without a warrant.

"What it shouldn't do is cause us to scrap the (loyalty) programs," he said. "But we do need to make sure that private data is private and is not used as a resource for law enforcement."

"A wise man is a man that realizes just how little he knows"


  • IconoclastIconoclast Member Posts: 10,912
    edited November -1
    All the information on the "customer loyalty" cards I have from such retailers is entirely bogus, each is different from the next and I have about six for each retailer which I rotate randomly. All they do is scan the thing at the checkout to be sure you 'qualify for discounts.' I wish any alphabet agency luck in figuring out which one of those many accounts might be me! Give them something to do with the fingers that aren't plugging up lower orifices.
  • MercuryMercury Member Posts: 7,653 ✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    I love these cards. I have several, under different names:

    Wells Fargo
    Ima Dude
    RU Safeway (Safeway card, of course!)
    Albert Albertons

    Hehehe.......nothing better than screwing up a database somewhere. :)


    NO! You may not have my guns! Now go crawl back into your hole!


    "Tolerating things you may not necessarily like is part of being free" - Larry Flynt
  • n/an/a Member Posts: 168,427
    edited November -1
    I was head cashier at a major grocery store before my medical training and those "loyalty cards" are a total rip off and invasion of privacy..
    First.. you think you are getting discounts... well, let my tell you.. no way in h*** are you getting discounts...As one who used to set the comps for prices.. I know.. before the cards, yes you saved money with coupons.... after the cards.. nope...the prices are jacked up by almost 50%... then scanned the card and you save maybe 30%... so you are still paying 20% higher than before... those buy 1, get 1 free are a rip off as well.. check the unit price.. you will see they are usually double the price of the product.. so when you think you are getting one free.. you arent...
    Any card will ask for your ph number, or SS number... addy..anything to get the basic info... once we had that, the rest was easy....even if you pay by check ..the info is there...
    Sending the info to a gov't agency is so simple...and yes.. they have it...

    One woman's opinion
  • kimberkidkimberkid Member Posts: 8,837 ✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    If they really want a good profile on someone, all they really need to do is look at your banking and credit card habits ... now I know not everyone has a bank account or plastic, but I think most everyone does ... the cash basis as a way of life is quickly disappearing and wouldn't be surprised to see "cash" go by the wayside to get more control over the people.

    Just because your paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get [email protected]
    If you really desire something, you'll find a way ?
    ? otherwise, you'll find an excuse.
  • 4GodandCountry4GodandCountry Member Posts: 3,968
    edited November -1
    If they wanna see what I eat they can analyze my by-products...

    When Clinton left office they gave him a 21 gun salute. Its a damn shame they all missed....
  • IconoclastIconoclast Member Posts: 10,912
    edited November -1
    4G&C, what makes you so sure "they" aren't already - certainly the various organs of government have an overabundance of that material!
  • offerorofferor Member Posts: 9,168
    edited November -1
    If the FBI or IRS wants to know that I buy cookies and milk with my frozen dinners, the h*** with them. You can bet I won't be signing up for the same type of card for anything sensitive. I think you guys' idea of goofy names is a great one. Think I'll go over to that method.

    - Life NRA Member
    "If cowardly & dishonorable men shoot unarmed men with army guns, the evil must be prevented by the penitentiary...and not by general deprivation of constitutional privilege." - Arkansas Supreme Court, 1878
  • n/an/a Member Posts: 168,427
    edited November -1
    The point of this post was to let you know what the gov't is doing.. not whether the cards are serving any purpose of saving you money..(which they arent)... it is rather scary when the gov't will go as far as getting that type of info about a person... is nothing private anymore?....

    One woman's opinion
  • dads-freeholddads-freehold Member Posts: 1,361 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    greetings, if you think this is bad wait until the homeland security thing get a head of steam, you ain't seen nothing yet. respt submitted dads-freehold

    rodney colson
  • RancheroPaulRancheroPaul Member Posts: 1,459 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    Doesn't make sense to me to "join a club" or have to apply for a "discount" or "preferred customer" card just to buy groceries. What is it that could be wrong with us as a "living, breathing, intelligent human being" if we just do this?

    If they want my business, they should strive to get it. To attempt to "baffle me with bullsh**" or to "dazzle me with brilliance" only makes me think they believe I am a FOOL waiting to be had! I shop for Groceries where they make me feel welcome by providing a clean store which doesn't smell of rotting food, has their "best prices posted" and doesn't require me to "kiss anybody's [email protected]@ or participate in their Hype and Horsesh**" just to feed myself and my family.

    Did it ever occur to anyone to just say "NO?" Try it sometime! These folks are "not programmed to respond" to such a term and you might find out what it is you "really HAVE to do!" Only thing I have to do is shop the ads, buy at a reputable Independent type Grocery store and when asked to join their club, apply for their discount card, etc., just say "NO" and find another store that wants my business.

    Of course, there is the other option. You can do it because "everyone does it," but you might be wrong......trust me......NOT everyone does it! My friends don't and neither do I! And we buy Groceries lots cheaper than you do!

    If You Can't Buy a Pair, Get a Spare!
  • offerorofferor Member Posts: 9,168
    edited November -1
    Around here the competition is vicious for both drug stores and supermarkets. They're in a market where people are obsessive about saving a penny. Put those two facts together and you have a certain degree of desperation to find a way to attract some loyalty. Actually, I find that the sale items with good prices aren't any cheaper, they just aren't on sale any more without the card. I can still find good buys, I just have to use the card now to check out when I didn't before.

    Of course, supermarkets have no basis on which to demand private info, so their checks on the ID information are practically non-existent. When they start saying, "hey, you're not so-and-so" it will become more of an issue for me. Besides, if I pay by credit card they're getting a load of my info anyway.

    - Life NRA Member
    "If cowardly & dishonorable men shoot unarmed men with army guns, the evil must be prevented by the penitentiary...and not by general deprivation of constitutional privilege." - Arkansas Supreme Court, 1878
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