Lost in the Supermarket.
Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?
I'm all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
Privacy has come a long way in my lifetime. When I was growing up there was a lot of concern about who knew what about you. People were worried that the government, or a corporation, would keep data about them for nefarious purposes.
Now we give away our information left, right and centre, and not only that but we laugh about how much “they” know about us. Not the “they” that we grew up with, which seemed threatening enough, but one now powered by vast numbers of computers collecting a network of data about each and everyone of us.
Yes, we laugh. When our phone or our computer starts showing us things we were just talking about. We joke about how it’s like the machine knows what we’re thinking, as if it was listening in on our conversations, collecting data on every interaction we have.
Yet in the pit of our stomachs we know that’s exactly what’s happening, we just don’t like to admit it. We know we’re being manipulated, that they are using the information they have on us to target advertising - and who knows what else?
When I was growing up we had stranger danger. Kids were taught not to talk to people we didn’t know, or get in their cars, or give away any information about ourselves. Now all of that has flown out of the window.
People use dating apps to meet up with complete strangers in scenarios that would’ve set off alarms decades ago, but are now considered commonplace, part of everyday life.
This morning I see there are headlines across our media about one of our two supermarket chains trialling facial recognition of their customers.
The Privacy Commissioner says he has concerns about a six-month trial of facial recognition technology which is under way at a number of North Island New World and Pak 'n Save stores.
From today 25 supermarkets are starting a six month trial of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT). Each person entering the store will be checked against a database of images.
Note that this isn’t a database managed by the courts or the police that would have rules around what data could be held, about who, and for how long. The supermarkets will use their own database of offenders.
As with all these things it kind of sounds fair enough, until we think about the unintended, or unadvertised, consequences. We’d all agree that people who assault supermarket workers, or steal from stores, should not be able to keep doing so. But who is watching the watchers?
I’m not worried so much about them using our data for advertising, we kind of assume that to be the case already. You didn’t think those “loyalty” cards were there to simply provide you with rewards, did you?
But do we actually want it happening right there in the store? Do we want to find that if we linger for a split second too long in front of the Toffee Pops that in the next aisle we hear a jingle playing which makes us go back and grab a packet, or two?
The concerns are not simply over the supermarkets using our data to make more money out of us, but of what happens if that data is misused.
A lot of us don’t really trust our supermarkets already. The extortionate pricing with our duopoly being essentially a monopoly, large profits even as suppliers and consumers are being squeezed, and worst of all the price gouging that occurred during Covid when the supermarkets had even more of a monopoly than usual.
We don’t trust these guys on the price of food, do we really want to trust them with our biometric data?
“The trial is being carried out after the Privacy Commissioner asked Foodstuffs North Island to provide evidence that biometric technologies such as FRT are a justified way to reduce retail crime.”
Privacy Commissioner, Michael Webster, said he was particularly concerned about bias and accuracy, noting that global trials of the most accurate FRT software showed false matches are more likely to occur for people of colour, particularly women.
"I am particularly worried about what this means for Māori, Pasifika, Indian, and Asian shoppers especially as the software is not trained on New Zealand's population. I don’t want to see people incorrectly banned from their local supermarket and falsely accused."
So it’s yet another thing that may disadvantage minorities, at a time when the government would have us believe that we’re all equal. And it comes on the back of another one announced yesterday.