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Stop supermarket surveillance cards and RFID technology

by Mary Lou Seymour 

July 22, 2003 

Every time the government tries to float the idea for a National ID card, we liberty activists get all revved up and scream and holler and the idea is shelved -- for awhile. But in the meantime, another Orwellian scheme to track our every move is quietly going on, insiduously creeping into every corner of our lives, through the auspices of the "free market," not the government. We've all been approached, probably we all have participated. I'm talking about supermarket "customer cards," those cards you sign up for at your local friendly supermarket or drug store, in order to qualify for "discounts." And the supermarkets are pretty aggressive about getting you to "sign up for savings." A satire in The Onion, "Before he knew what's happening, man belongs to $uper $avers club," strikes a responsive chord ... because it's so true. 

The primary reason these programs exist is for the supermarkets to get data on what their shoppers are buying. The value to the supermarket is obvious; they get an overview of their "customer base." The value to the shopper ... well, that's questionable. A July 18 CBS News report reveals what we've all suspected is true ... that the card stores simply jack up rices then "cut" them for card holders so it appears the card holders are getting a good deal. 

But so what. The supermarkets aren't doing you any harm, they're just getting data so they can tailor their product offerings to their customer base, right? Well, Supermarket "Customer cards" are really Register and monitoring cards, says Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), an organization formed to educate consumers about marketing strategies that invade their privacy and to encourage privacy-conscious shopping habits across the retail spectrum. .... Whenever a person hands over name, address, and ID to receive a numbered card, that person has been registered. When that number is used to track the individual's activities, that person is also being monitored." CASPIAN also notes that club card records be seized by law enforcement agencies "when private companies (like supermarkets) do the digging for them, law enforcement doesn't have to worry about that pesky Constitution. Let the private sector do the privacy violation and all you need is a search warrant." 

But so what ... if you're not buying explosives or gunpowder or AK47's with the card, who cares if LE can get hold of your records?  (Another variation of the old 'why do you need a 6 foot fence if you've nothing to hide', or 'Who cares if they know what I say to my friends in email'.) Well, if you're simply not bothered by the idea of others knowing your personal, private information, and feel no desire for a private life that really IS private, unscrutinized by others .... consider the next step. 

Once the supermarkets and drug stores have gotten us sheeple accustomed to cheerfully being registered and monitored, CASPIAN warns that "A new consumer goods tracking system called Auto-ID is poised to enter all of our lives, with profound implications for consumer privacy. Auto-ID couples radio frequency (RF) identification technology with highly miniaturized computers that enable products to be identified and tracked at any point along the supply chain." "Now that shopper cards have whetted their appetite for data, marketers are no longer content to know who buys what, when, where, and how. As incredible as it may seem, they are now planning ways to monitor consumers' use of products within their very homes. Auto-ID tags coupled with indoor receivers installed in shelves, floors, and doorways, could provide a degree of omniscience about consumer behavior that staggers the imagination." (For more info on RFID technology, see RFID, Inc.) 

But so what? The supermarkets aren't doing you any harm, they're just getting data so they can tailor their product offerings to their customer base, right? Well, supermarket "customer cards" are really register and monitoring cards, says Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), an organization formed to educate consumers about marketing strategies that invade their privacy and to encourage privacy-conscious shopping habits across the retail spectrum. "Whenever a person hands over name, address and ID to receive a numbered card, that person has been registered. When that number is used to track the individual's activities, that person is also being monitored." CASPIAN also notes that club card records be seized by law enforcement agencies "when private companies (like supermarkets) do the digging for them, law enforcement doesn't have to worry about that pesky Constitution. Let the private sector do the privacy violation and all you need is a search warrant." 

But so what ... if you're not buying explosives or gunpowder or AK- 47s with the card, who cares if LE can get hold of your records? (Another variation of the old "why do you need a 6 foot fence if you've nothing to hide," or "Who cares if they know what I say to my friends in email"). Well, if you're simply not bothered by the idea of others knowing your personal, private information, and feel no desire for a private life that really IS private, unscrutinized by others . consider the next step. 

Once the supermarkets and drug stores have gotten us sheeple accustomed to cheerfully being registered and monitored, CASPIAN warns that "A new consumer goods tracking system called Auto-ID is poised to enter all of our lives, with profound implications for consumer privacy. Auto-ID couples radio frequency (RF) identification technology with highly miniaturized computers that enable products to be identified and tracked at any point along the supply chain." "Now that shopper cards have whetted their appetite for data, marketers are no longer content to know who buys what, when, where, and how. As incredible as it may seem, they are now planning ways to monitor consumers' use of products within their very homes. Auto-ID tags coupled with indoor receivers installed in shelves, floors, and doorways, could provide a degree of omniscience about consumer behavior that staggers the imagination." (For more info on RFID technology, see RFID, Inc.) 

As Fred Reed points out in "Camera State," the government isn't going to HAVE to "force us to build these chips into things so that it can watch us." We're going to do it to ourselves, for "convenience sake." The RFIDs will be in everything. We won't even KNOW we're being tracked. 

Not happening yet so we don't have to worry yet? Well, Gillette is readying a "smart shelf" technology that not only tracks products and builds an identity profile of the consumer doing the buying but actually takes a PICTURE of the consumer buying the product. ("Technology automatically IDs consumers") so even if you paid cash, your picture would be available for later identification. 

Not only that,but with ANY dbase, there's always the issue of security ... even if (for some reason) you don't MIND your personal info being in a supermarket or government dbase, presumably at least you'd like it to be "secure" so that Joe Blow the Con Man can't obtain your data. Well, the organization which has been entrusted with developing a global Internet infrastructure for radio frequency identification (RFID) isn't very secure. The Auto-ID Center (whose plans are to tag all the objects manufactured on the planet with RFID chips and track them via the Internet) was recently recvealed to have security as secure as, well, a leaky sieve. CASPIAN recently discovered that "anyone can download revealing documents labeled 'confidential' from the home page of the MIT Auto-ID Center web site in two mouse clicks." After CASPIAN's July 7 press release, CASPIAN noted "Within hours of our press release, a search for 'confidential' documents returned only 13 unremarkable items. This number has been fluctuating throughout the day as the Center scrambles to plug its security holes. Prior to the press release, 68 'confidential' documents were available." Several members of the Internet community mirrored the documents found on Center's web site before the site was secured, and, links to the mirrored versions of the referenced internal documents can be seen at "RFID Site Security Gaffe Uncovered by Consumer Group." 

So. This is pretty scary stuff, right? All the guns and ammo and supplies and electing libertarians to office and moving to a Free State isn't going to do us a heck of a lot of good if we can't buy a pair of blue jeans or a bar of soap without being registered and monitored and tracked. (Plus, of course, undoubtedly the guns and ammo would have RFIDs implanted in them:-) ) 

Many folks who are freaked out about this invasion of privacy have suggested variations on the theme of "use a fake ID to get your card." While this "guerilla activism" may sound appealing, Katherine Albrecht of CASPIAN points out why this is not the way to combat the threat of supermarket surveillance in "10 Reasons Not to Use a Fake Card," but to instead use the power of the free market to "punish and reward" the villains and heroes through our pocketbooks. 

CASPIAN maintains a dbase of supermarkets, with the stores coded by whether they currently registers and monitors shoppers, whether they require state ID or social security number for discounts, and lists those markets which have NO shopper registration program as well as those "true heroes" who have promised NEVER to have such a program as well as a list of Winners of the CASPIAN "Triple Blue Ribbon of Privacy" (stores which have promised to NEVER implement a shopper registration program). 

For this week's action, let's familiarize ourselves with this huge potential threat to our privacy and security, and, take a few steps towards removing ourselves and our friends and families from the supermarket dbases in our own communities, and combat this threat by using our greatest weapon, the power of the free market. Stop using supermarket loyalty cards. And let's start calling them what they ARE ... surveillance cards. Find and patronize stores who do NOT require them and help CASPIAN maintain and expand their dbase of stores. Get a list of stores in YOUR local community which do not require cards, and publicize the list (print out a flyer listing reasons to NOT shop at loyalty card stores, and, give alternatives). Call, email or write the stores which do NOT require cards and thank them. Check out the CASPIAN site for info on current protests and boycott info, and spread the word. 

As for the RFID issue ... keep up with the latest "action alerts" from CASPIAN and join in consumer protests of this insiduous Big Brother technology. If you doubt privacy activism CAN help turn the tide, consider that giant Wal-Mart has recently backed down on a planned trial of the "smart-shelf system" mentioned above with partner Gillette that was scheduled to begin last month at an outlet in Brockton, Mass, due to "barbs from consumer privacy groups," and Bennetton clothing (a subject of a CASPIAN action alert) announced in April that it is retreating from plans to equip 15 million garments with tracking chips (announced in a March 11th press release issued by Philips Electronics). 

Til next week 

For Freedom (and privacy!) Mary Lou 

PS: In my column "Defend free speech rights," I reported on the arrest of the Free State Project Membership Director Tim Condon for handing out flyers at the NRA Convention in Florida. Well, good news! The charges against Tim for "Trespass after warning," have been DISMISSED! Tim is now working on a civil action against the perpetrators of this assault on his First Amendment rights. Stay tuned! 

PPS: Thank you all for the outpouring of emails in support of Spot, the Great Dane I rescued and reported on last week in "My Dog Spot." I am sad to report that when I took Spot to the vet, she was found to be heartworm positive. The wonderful vet said she was willing to "take Spot in" and build her health back up so she could have heartworm treatment (an expensive, time consuming, and dangerous treatment), and find a home for her (the vet has a former Great Dane owner who just lost their beloved pet in mind), and, after much soul searching, I decided this was the best thing I could do for Spot. Spot MUST be kept in air conditioning due to her skin condition while she is recovering and undergoing treatment, and, because of my cats I couldn't keep her inside, and, because of my finances, I probably couldn't afford the heartworm treatment. (I'd been hoping to get a "clean buill of health" for her so I could get doggie health insurance, as Great Danes apparently are prone to a lot of expensive ailments.) I am visiting her at the vet hospital, and will continue to do so until she is safely "placed." (If the placement falls through, I'll be there to either take her back or try to find her another home of course.) She is doing well, the vet "hospital" is very clean and has techs on duty all day, and they are all "in love" with Spot (who is indeed a special dog). I will keep y'all updated on Spot's progress.


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