Web analytics are leaking into meatspace

A Stallman-esque short story about the future of offline tracking and the right to buy

Poster on pole proclaiming 'big data is watching you'

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4 min

By the time we realised what was happening, it was already too late.

The cameras recognise me as soon as I set foot in the FoodCorp Supermarket. The footage is streamed live to one of their dozen analytics data centres. There proprietary facial recognition algorithms compare my face to that of everyone who has ever shopped at a FoodCorp store. To supplement this they also analyse the gait of my walk, uniqueness of my freckle locations and my tattoo. All this takes about 800 milliseconds. Once I am identified, those servers look up their historical databases to find recordings, analytics and purchase history from all my prior shopping trips. This is when my Customer Journey™ begins.

As I head towards the snack aisle I see dozens of cameras overhead, watching silently. They're no longer just an anti-shoplifting measure, not since the year 2025 or so. I walk straight past the health-food snack section. The cameras note this, but the back-end analytics server isn't surprised. It remembers that time I re-tweeted an opinion piece critical of quinoa and gluten-free food, so it's expecting me to shun this section.

I continue on to the cheap junk food section. Reaching to pick up a pack of BBQ chips, I pause. Instead I choose the prettier looking alternative sitting on the shelf next to it. The cameras note this. They know I just turned down my usual choice for something new. This triggers a back end algorithm which immediately sells the information about my choice to both food manufacturers. Those brands wouldn't pay much for "a customer chose brand A over brand B". However they're getting a lot more information than just that. They're getting a whole 1.2 megabyte payload.

{
   "Name": "Matthew Davis",
   "Age": 26,
   "Gender": "Male",
   "Average Weekly FoodCorp Spend": "$152.34"
   "Income (pre-tax)": {
      "Value": "$63,300",
      "Confidence Window": "$700"
   },
   "Timestamp": "2030-08-14 17:43:12",
   "Absolute Location": "Pitt St Store",
   "Relative Location": {
      "Value": "between place of work and usual bus stop",
      "Confidence": "92%"
   },
   "Comment": {
      "Value": "afternoon snack on way home from work",
      "Confidence": "91%"
   },
   "Marital Status": "single",
   "Visible Mood": {
      "Happy": 0.7,
      "Hesitant": 0.05
   },
   "Facebook User ID": "764efa883dda1",
   ...
}

FoodCorp's servers dig deep into their data troves, and those of their partners. They pull up everything they know about me. They have already purchased my demographic, social media and credit card information from shady third party data brokers. Some of that data was obtained originally through illicit and unethical means. However that was by sub-sub-sub-contractors of the data broker. This diffuses culpability to a level which is safe for corporate governance and profitability, as far as the FoodCorp board is concerned. Aggregated together with video and purchase history from all my prior visits they're able to paint a complete picture about me as a person.

Food brands love this. (Even though both chip brands are ultimately owned by the same company.) However they aren't the only ones who pay dearly for this data. My health insurer is also quite interested in my choice of afternoon snack. The NSA, Facebook, Equifax, Border Force, Centrelink and countless others are also kept in the loop.

FoodCorp claims that these "auxiliary revenue opportunities" help them offer more competitive prices. However my grocery bill doesn't seem any lower than before. The FoodCorp shareholders are happy though.

FoodCorp claims that we all consent to having our data secretly extracted, aggregated and sold. In the eyes of the law this is technically true, because at the entrance to every FoodWorks store there is an inconspicuous ankle-height sign.

By entering this store you agree to be bound by the FoodCorp™ Privacy Statement and End User Licence Agreement (EULA).

The documents themselves don't appear at the store entrance, because each is about 10,000 words long. So anyone who actually noticed the sign would be clueless as to what they'd potentially be agreeing to.

However even if you do find the online copies and read them, it won't make a difference. Section 17.3.2a of the EULA claims that it is "subject to change without notice". So you may agree to what seems to be reasonable terms today. However FoodCorp can silently change their policies tomorrow to allow them to enter your home and look through your underwear drawer. You wouldn't legally be able to stop them. By entering any of their stores at some point in the past, you've become bound to the whims of a for-profit corporation's policy which is "subject to change without notice". What this amounts to is the privatization of the law.

On my way to the checkout I pass a pair of FoodCorp Customer Excellence Ambassadors™. (Formerly known as "shelf stockers".) They're setting up the store's Christmas decorations. Each year they get a little bit earlier. It's currently mid-August.

The first screen I see as I approach the self-checkout machine is a prompt asking me to identify myself with a my loyalty card. After dismissing it and then scanning the barcode on my bag of chips at the self checkout, I'm told the price is $4.80. Damn. The electronic price tag on the shelf told me the chips only cost $4.10, but that was 2 minutes ago.

When FoodCorp first introduced dynamic pricing they claimed that it was only a time-based market signal to incentivise shoppers to shop outside the busy periods. However there's no transparency about when or why prices change. Everyone knows that FoodCorp's automated surveillance system temporarily increases prices based on the income of whoever is in that aisle, and whether they look like they're in a hurry. Unfortunately there's no way for any consumer rights group to prove it, because their proprietary pricing algorithms are hidden from the courts by overzealous trade secret laws.

None of the self checkout machines accept cash any more. The days of anonymous purchases without private middlemen are long gone. The government's competition watchdog put up no resistance to a for-profit duopoly taking over 100% of retail transactions. Now access to money (and therefore the ability to participate in society itself) is effectively privatised. The watchdog claims this is fine because we still have a choice. Hmm, do I want to be tracked by Mastercard or Visa? Either way I must submit to the invasive and opaque demands of private payment providers. Both of those card corporations have data exchange deals with FoodCorp. The card companies hand over my income and spending habit data to FoodCorp. In exchange FoodCorp gives them detailed information about what I purchased, which aisles I visited, which items I looked at, and for how long. The card companies then resell this data to an undisclosed number of other companies who mistakenly believe surveillance capitalism is the only sustainable business model.

This secret data has a tangible impact on my life. It was used by my bank to decide whether to give me a mortgage. If I am charged with a crime this data will be used to determine the length of my prison sentence. Proprietary algorithms make unappealable decisions about whether I am allowed to board a plane or cross borders based on this data. Despite this, I am not able to see what the data says about me, let alone correct any mistakes.

The checkout machine asks me if I want a digital receipt sent to me via email, SMS, Facebook Messenger or the FoodCorp app. This is mostly so that they can discover yet another identifier to track me with. (The FoodCorp app also tracks your location long after you've left the store.)

Many FoodCorp shoppers still believe that physical shopping is anonymous. That unlike the online world, your behaviors and purchases are not tracked, nor sold to advertising agencies and data brokers. But that's not true. While we buy groceries at FoodCorp to feed ourselves, FoodCorp feeds on us.