Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Supermarket Is Watching You

Blithely we go into our local supermarkets, browse the aisles, picking up and putting back or throwing things into our carts or baskets. It is an effortless, hopefully, task that the majority of we in the 99% perform for ourselves because we have to buy food, cleaning supplies and various other sundries. Don’t you love that word “sundries?” It’s like greengrocer or dry goods stores—all associated with a bygone era that was free from surveillance.

Did I say surveillance? What am I thinking? Have I been too preoccupied with the Snowden revelations or am I a bit paranoid? No, I just finished watching Bill Moyers’ show and the guest had written a book on how surveilled we are in our current techno-crazy age. Although I was well aware that we are being sold daily (and I do mean our personal data) to whoever wants to buy it, I accepted it.

When the guest began counting the ways the government or businesses watch us and collect our data, it became eminently clear that this was getting to the point of our having no control over it. Just meeting someone for a cup of coffee or dinner results in our putting a bit of data into a huge bank that can be searched to see who we met, when and where. Do you realize that your cell phone and the cell phone of the other person create a discrete data point that can be used in any way someone wishes? I don’t know if turning your phone off stops the transmission. You can’t take the battery out because you’ll lose all your info in memory, I suppose.

But back to the calming tunes in the supermarket. So, your cell is shouting out where you are to every cell tower you pass, you are being tracked on the in-supermarket cameras and then there’s one other thing. Do you have one of those customer discount cards where the store gives you special pricing and discounts? Oh, yes, that stores everything you buy and creates a profile for offers and where you live and how you pay. But you knew that already.

I suppose that, if someone wanted to track all your movements for the entire day, they could and it wouldn’t be that hard. You don’t have to be better than someone who knows how to run a data mining program. Sniffer programs, too, watch your computer use, passwords and the search engines are bloated with your interests from your searches, emails and heaven only knows what else.

Your car even has a computer black box than can be read to provide lots of information about you. That GPS is probably a wonderful tool for anyone who loves to track people. So it’s not the Hall & Oates “Private Eyes” exactly, but it’s close.

What’s the moral here or the take-away? Simply that data is being collected, we have little or no control over it and we get no bucks back for all of our data that is sold over and over and over again. This is the modern equivalent of the mailing lists that companies used to buy, but here they can be sorted into an incredible number of ways to serve any customer.  We provide the goods and they get the goodies.

What to do? For one thing, which Moyers’ guest did mention, was that our privacy laws haven’t kept pace with technology. The current laws are based on things that were prevalent perhaps 50 years ago, so they are like tissues trying to hold back the rain. The laws on privacy and, perhaps, the right to sell our own information or to get a percentage of all sales of our information, need to be re-written to protect our rights. Shouldn’t be own our own data?

Think it might happen? Only if we have a powerful lobby working for us and I don’t see that marching our way over the horizon anytime soon.