The Cost of Checking Out

Most people have become accustomed to signing up for “discount” cards – such as MVP or VIP cards – when shopping at grocery stores. The cards provide the benefit of enjoying weekly sale prices, at the expense of some loss of privacy. A person generally has to disclose his/her name, address, and phone number when signing up for the cards. However, the store can then track each individual’s purchasing history while using that card on all purchases, whether the item was discounted or not, as most shoppers swipe their card for all subsequent purchases at a store.

This sort of information can be invaluable to a store’s marketing and business strategies, as they can track which sales seem to work and which products are simply in higher demand. Consumers generally accept the privacy tradeoff because they benefit from the perceived lower prices on the goods they want.

Recently in the news, however, a more invasive use of this privacy information entered the media spotlight, if but for a few days. The first news article, which can be found here, described a fireman charged for setting fire to his own house. The police arrested him after finding that his Safeway Club Card had been used to purchase a firestarter (and a firestarter was used in this particular fire). The firefighter claimed to have never purchased such a firestarter.

The use of such purchasing information to solve crime is nothing new – at least based on the perception created by television crime dramas – but still seems to push the boundaries of personal privacy information. As one who has never liked giving a store access to my entire purchasing history, I am always that guy who needs to borrow a discount card at the grocery store or gets the cashier to just swipe a store card. After reading this news story, however, I wonder if a criminal could completely cripple a person’s life by merely asking to borrow his/her card in line when making a purchase of something that will be used to commit crime.

While the details still are not fully clear on what happened in this arson case, the charges against the firefighter were dropped. The reason for the dismissal of charges, however, was not from police disregarding the results of this purchasing history; instead, it took another person coming forward and claiming responsibility for the fire for the firefighter to be cleared of suspicion. This confession came after the firefighter endured five months of public scrutiny and administrative leave from his job. A followup article on the story can be found here.

For anyone interested in the particulars of Safeway’s privacy policies, the details are here [pdf].

In the end, this is just another case of let the buyer beware – but in this case beware of who ends up knowing what you bought at the store…