It sounds like a good idea — sign up for a loyalty card at a grocery store and get all kinds of discounts and promotional offers. But by giving you small discounts on items that have high markups, the retailer is gathering enormous amount of information on what you shop for. Remember that old adage — you are what you eat? Retailers take it a step further, banking on “you are what you buy.” The companies use this data to understand who you are, how much you spend and when, what you buy and are willing to buy, what influences your purchases, and how to forecast what items they should or shouldn’t carry. All that information starts to add up. Jessica Williams, a British journalist writes: “In the U.S., the sheer size of some retailers means the amount of information they hold is… staggering. The Wal-Mart chain admits that it holds 460 terabytes of data on its computers — that’s the number 460 followed by 12 zeroes.” So how much is 460 terabytes of data? It is 23 times the amount of information held in all 128 million books found in the Library of Congress. In short, retailers know more about you than any government agency. And this last fact is what disturbs privacy advocates the most — that post 9/11, some retailers have voluntarily handed over this information to the FBI. Williams reports that the federal agencies used that data to create an algorithm that indicates the terrorist potential of just about every American citizen. Indeed, the Big Brother that George Orwell depicted in 1984 (published in 1949) doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
So the next time you are shopping for groceries, ponder for a moment the volume of data that each item in your basket is adding to your profile.
For further reading: 50 Facts That Should Change the World by Jessica Williams (2007)