Invasion of privacy has recently been a hot topic on local Patch sites. Readers have debated the deployment of drones by law enforcement officials and the use of police cruisers with cameras tracking our whereabouts.
Missing from that discussion, however, is what some say is another troubling encroachment of our privacy - retail store loyalty cards.
You know what I'm talking about - those plastic cards issued by retailers taking up valuable real estate in our wallets and reproducing like rabbits on our keychains.
To obtain them and reap savings we must surrender personal information including our phone numbers, e-mail addresses, home addresses, age, gender and/or some combination of the above.
In some cases issuers want us to tie their savings card to our smart phones.
There is fierce competition for customers' post-recession dollars. Retailers want to win our shopping allegiance.
To do this, they employ a carrot and stick approach - offering us "savings" on products we buy if we use their loyalty card or, conversely, punishing us by making us pay a sometimes exhorbitant "full price" if we don't.
Some stores issue savings on the spot at the checkout. Some reward us with coupons we can use on our next purchase that are geared to our product preferences. Others give us gasoline discounts at the pump. Still others tabulate savings over time and issue quarterly or annual dividends.
Now Nob Hill, Raley's and Bell Air markets have the "Something Extra" card.
Every month or so another retailer jumps on this data-mining bandwagon, gathering huge amounts of information on us under the guise of better serving customers. It is not just grocery stores and pharmacies, either. Starbucks, Petco and a myriad of other retailers are in the game. According to the book "Brandwashed", such data-mining is a $100 billion dollar industry.
Loyalty cards of all sorts have also gone mobile. A New York Times article provides a brief overview of the rapid proliferation of these programs.
Another way stores are conceivably able to track our purchases is through cards it issues such as the Luckys Shares card - which enables you to donate a portion of your purchases to a charity of your choice.
Some retailers allow customers to cash their paychecks in their stores, but require they provide their personal information such as social security and driver's license numbers.
Although stores try to assure customers they have "privacy protection" rules in place to guard our personal information, what guarantee do we have that our data might not be somehow accidentally compromised or hacked? Can law enforcement subpoena our shopping card records to uncover we bought alcohol, for instance, right before we were involved in an accident? Could a disgruntled spouse conceivably subpoena our shopping history in a divorce action to show we purchased condoms?
In an interesting article in Business Insider, "12 Ways Companies Spy On You" a variety of data mining techniques and other tactics retailers use are revealed. Another article discusses a trend that ramped up last holiday shopping season about malls that track consumers' movement via their cell phones.
(Even getting to the store may mean our every step is tracked. If we shop on-line our Internet activity is followed, if we drive traffic cameras capture our location and even if we use the Clipper card to ride public transit our privacy may be compromised.)
Some people completely refuse to use shopping loyalty cards altogether and either pay higher prices at stores that do offer them or shop at stores such as Trader Joe's and Grocery Outlet, that don't issue them.
Others choose Mom and Pop retailers, food buying co-ops, growing their own food and other ways of opting out.
Even those of us who use the loyalty cards to reap the savings they provide may have qualms about how our information is (or could be) used.
While our individual information is supposedly not sold or shared according to most stores' privacy statements, is the collective information gathered about all shoppers at certain stores packaged and made available to others? How might that impact insurance rates in our area, for instance? Do people in our zip code snack too much, smoke, or drink in excess?
If our personal profile was compromised, what could an employer learn about us from our shopping habits? Could they identify what magazines we buy at the checkstand; if we have a baby in the house for whom we buy diapers; if we are caring for an elderly parent because we have purchased denture polish; and about our sex life if we are purchasing over the counter contraception?
Let your imagination run with this question for awhile and think about what your own shopping list might reveal about you to your boss or a prospective employer.
A number of organizations are raising a red flag about how our personal information is used by retailers including C.A.S.P.I.A.N. - Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. You can read their answers to frequently asked questions about privacy and retail loyalty cards here.
So what do you think Patch readers - Do you like loyalty cards or not? What privacy concerns do you have? Have we reached a point of no return with our private information so readily available that there is no point in avoiding them?