It’s not just Facebook that harvests our personal information on a daily basis.
In 1993 a research team working for Tesco was asked to investigate a loyalty scheme using magnetic stripe cards – cutting edge technology for the time.
When the research team presented their findings to the board a year later, the chairman famously exclaimed: “What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years.”
Because when you think about it, you can tell a lot about a person from their shopping habits.
As long as I dutifully swipe my clubcard every time I make a purchase, a data analyst in head office can tell if I smoke, how much alcohol I drink, the quantity of junk food I consume and what magazines I like to read.
Bought some size 5 nappies in the Tesco local in town? Must have a two-year-old. Spend over £150 a week in Kingsmead Sainsbury’s? Your household income can be calculated to an alarming level of accuracy.
Well why don’t I just stop using my loyalty card? Too late. All my purchases are tied together by my debit card. Even if you forget to use your loyalty card, they still know it’s you.
So why does it matter? As long as I’m getting 20p off a packet of something I probably wouldn’t have otherwise bought, what’s the problem?
Maybe nothing. But think of all the other services supermarkets now offer. Banking, mobile phones, TV streaming services and insurance. Do I want my car insurance company to know how much wine I drink? Insurers pass information between each other to prevent fraud. If I apply for health insurance, how do I know the price I’m quoted isn’t affected by the pork scratchings in my shopping basket?
Facebook is under fire for allowing our data to be used in electoral campaigns. The media love a story about Facebook and data protection, so it isn’t really a surprise. But Facebook is far from alone in playing fast and loose with our privacy.
In 2017 the Canadian manufacturers of a Bluetooth-enabled vibrating sex toy were forced to pay damages after it was revealed that details of temperature and vibration intensity were being transmitted back to head office in real time.
In this era of the evolving smart home, half the devices in your house have the capacity to relay your data. Watching Netflix? They know what programmes you like. Using Gmail to send emails? Each one is scanned as you sent it. Location services enabled on your smartphone? They know where you live and where you work.
So are tin-foil hats the only solution? Is the human race on the cusp of enslavement? Not at all. There are upsides to the situation.
I would rather see ads for things I want to buy than things I have no interest in. If I have to watch one I’d prefer to see digital cameras than moisturising cream.
Like it or not, this data also keeps us protected. It’s a fairly safe bet that our intelligence services are tapped in, and if they can prevent a terrorist blowing themselves up in a school by checking what I’m having for dinner then I’m all for it.
Next month new data protection laws come into place. Known as GDPR, the rules will give us all much greater protection – and a say over what companies can do with our data. For example, businesses won’t be able to send you marketing emails just because you’ve bought something from them. Ever been asked if you want your receipt emailed to you? Previously that meant being added to an email marketing list – but no longer.
Society is slowly beginning to understand how the lines between the digital world and the physical world are blurring. There is a place for big data if it improves our quality of life. Those who seek to manipulate it for their own ends, including fixing elections, need to see the inside of a gaol cell as soon as possible. But our lives won’t be automatically improved by running away from technology.
Just be aware what’s happening next time your local supermarket asks if you want to scan your clubcard. In my opinion, the meagre money-off vouchers aren’t worth the trade-off with my privacy. Although, you may think differently…