The land of milk and money

Banking at the supermarket might seem convenient, but you should think twice before putting so much of your information into the hands of a single corporation, writes Katina Michael.

The Big Data movement is slowly heralding consumers into an uberveillance society. (Dave Hunt, file photo: AAP)

The Big Data movement is slowly heralding consumers into an uberveillance society. (Dave Hunt, file photo: AAP)

In the late 1990s, when smart cards were being touted as the next big thing, telecommunications companies considered how the SIM (subscriber identity module) card located at the back of the mobile phone might well be the way to turn a telephone operator into a mainstream bank.

The threat of these new entrant business models to traditional banks did not go unnoticed. Some banks considered how to fight back by investing in co-branded mobile services. The war over customer loyalty had begun in earnest.

How is the Coles supermarket push toward banking any different? Here we have a traditional supermarket wishing to offer its customers banking services at point-of-sale.

On face value, it makes perfect sense to a busy consumer - bank where you spend and save on transaction fees and earn customer loyalty rewards at the same time.

Some consumers not only want more convenience but are even willing to pay for it, even at the expense of giving away even greater amounts of personal information.

The temptation to centralise all our different electronic touch-points has never been greater. By doing so we are sold the value of "benefit", in the form of "free gifts", "upgrades", and "speed".

We have long been asking to purchase "bread", "milk", and "$100 cash out" - so what is the problem with a supermarket diversifying into financial services, insurance and credit cards?

Just think on it. You're at the checkout and find yourself stating: "Bread, milk and money please..." We should not be fooled - control is a big part of the underlying equation.

If I know what your disposable income is, when you get paid, the probable sources of cash inflows and cash outflows, and I know how you spend your money day in day out, then I know a lot more about you than even the Tax Office, and maybe even Australia's Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). This is a type of dataveillance - the systematic profiling and monitoring of transactions enables businesses like Coles to predict what mechanism shoppers will respond to, depending on their movements and patterns of purchase.

Yet it does not stop there.

Coles could share their customer data with other Wesfarmers subsidiaries, including, Bi-Lo, Coles Hotels, Liquorland, Officeworks, Kmart, Target, and Harris Technology among others, as there is no law against sharing data within an organisation that a customer has willingly signed over. Coles Supermarket customers should check how their data is presently being used with respect to their "FlyBuys" scheme: they may be signing up to a lot more behavioural tracking than they realise!

The illusion of gain - from loyalty programs - is especially problematic as customers will visit various Wesfarmers outlets, use the same card to make purchases of different kinds, and then the data be correlated back to buying behaviours and deeply sensitive personal information. Coupled with online web transactions, cookies, and the like, we quickly begin to know everything about someone's life and can control a great deal of their actions.

The big data movement is slowly heralding consumers into an uberveillance society.

The forms of control with what has been come to be known as data-driven innovation and predictive analytics is based on a business model built on technology. In the context of customer relationship management, it has to do with instituting measures that monetize the consumer - the more you play the shopper game, the more you are rewarded with bonus points. It is akin to behavioural economics and can tell supermarket giants what triggered a particular type of purchase, and correlations between various purchase types across retailers, given one's available savings/credit at a given point in time.

Next, shoppers can expect real-time tailored product offers related to existing purchases. The bank or shopper cards will likely be linked to trolleys anticipating complementary and supplementary purchases. These are blatant intervention strategies that predict not only what you might be considering buying but even who you are buying for, and could lead to greater profits for the supermarket, but erode the privacy of the consumer.

This is not what I call marketing, and it certainly is not the function of business intelligence. It is unscrupulous manipulation of the populace for profit; it is the dehumanisation of individuals down to a frequent shopper card ID number; and it is the erosion of an individual's right to privacy.

Shoppers disclose much through their bank statements, including subscriptions to certain magazines, donations to particular political or religious groups, and even their immediate social network. All of these are fraught with potential misuse as private companies begin to cross-leverage micro-detail data about individuals.

Shoppers should not be fooled: resistance to "Supermarket Money" is not futile. The time to resist the urge to "give in" is now. Your individual freedom is at stake. And if we don't fight back, then we should expect even greater forms of control in the future. One could only imagine how this data would be misused during times of crisis or rationing.


First published on The Drum here