a supermarket checkout where a woman in grey smiles as she scants her card - bunt there is a red box behind her and a threatening vibe, like she's being watched
Scanning a loyalty card means discounts, but it also means surveillance. (Image: Getty; additional design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMarch 25, 2024

Supermarkets know everything from your gender to licence plate number. Do you care?

a supermarket checkout where a woman in grey smiles as she scants her card - bunt there is a red box behind her and a threatening vibe, like she's being watched
Scanning a loyalty card means discounts, but it also means surveillance. (Image: Getty; additional design: Tina Tiller)

CCTV cameras, self-checkout machines, data-gathering loyalty cards, facial recognition: supermarkets gather an obscene amount of information about customers. Can they be trusted with it? 

Every day for the last few weeks, J Frank*, an Auckland software developer, has checked the letterbox. He’s been waiting for mail from Woolworths containing their new Everyday Rewards cards, the supermarket chain’s loyalty programme.

Concerned about how much information the supermarket has about him, Frank has devised a way to get the bonuses of loyalty discounts without the big data tradeoff: have four or five different cards under fake names, which he takes turns switching out with his other flatmates, so no one person has the same buyer activity associated with them. Living near two Woolworths supermarkets, he goes to the supermarket chain a lot – but while they might know his address, he’s determined that he won’t have his individual data monetised by the chain. 

“My main concern is where this data is going, and who else is using it,” Frank says. It might seem that his shopping information is innocuous – a bunch of bananas here, a bottle of milk there – but he doesn’t like the idea that this information might linger for years on unseen databases, potentially being shared without oversight, beyond his control. Even if the information is secure, it’s the principle of the thing: he wonders what the supermarket chain gains from having individual information about their customers. 

But his qualms aren’t quite enough to stop him from wanting the discounts the Everyday Rewards card offers, so the fake names, and the somewhat reluctantly recruited flatmates, are his compromise. 

a supermarket entrances with everyday rewards bunting
Supermarket bunting welcomes the new Everyday Rewards card (image: The Spinoff)

Frank’s card shuffling might seem paranoid: most people probably have at least a few loyalty cards loitering in their wallets, filled with bookshop stamps or outdoor store discounts or fuel savings codes. By sheer virtue of frequency of visit and variety of products available, the supermarket card will probably have more information about you than a coffee shop or fuel station – but is it really anything to worry about? 

The discounts on a loyalty card are just a sweetener, says Gehan Gunasekara, co-founder of independent group the Privacy Foundation and a law professor who has worked with students researching loyalty schemes. What makes that scuffed bit of plastic really valuable, fake name or no, is your data. “They know everything you buy, every item, which store it’s bought from, how often you go to the supermarket, which brands you like,” Gunasekara says. “That’s really fine-grained data – it can tell the story of your diet, your preferences, your whole life.” 

Getting people to care about privacy can be an uphill battle, which Gunasekara is very familiar with: after several decades of business being increasingly digital, surrendering your personal information, voluntarily or thoughtlessly, has become so prevalent that the event itself is quotidian. When you click “accept all cookies” or tick a terms and conditions box without reading said terms and conditions, when you tag your location on an Instagram post or look up your local public transport timetable, you are placing another coin into the dragon’s hoard of digital information. 

No-one is immune: Vladimir Putin’s location has been deduced from the ads served to the phones of his immediate retainers; secret American military bases have shown up as hot spots of digital exercise data on Strava. 

At the supermarket, though, the exchange of personal information for food is more tangible. At the entrance, you might be greeted by a sign with small text alerting you to new cameras or a facial recognition trial. Look up from the bewilderingly expensive limes, and you’ll spot dozens of CCTV cameras on the ceiling, like little black blisters. Increasingly, cameras hover above the self checkout too. And if you want those member prices – which can be significantly cheaper than the normal ones – don’t forget you’re giving away some information when you swipe your phone or card against the scanner. 

Gehan, a brown skinned man with a slightly receding hairline and a a friendly smile grins in front of a brick wall
Gehan Gunasekara says loyalty cards are a way for supermarkets to get more data about their customers (image: supplied)

On one hand, maybe this is fine. After all, most data is not used to identify and target individuals; revealing to some faceless goon in an office that you, in particular, have a weakness for Monday kombucha. Instead, it’s embedded in automatic processes, used in aggregate. Some serve a direct benefit to consumers: if the data shows that more people are buying a brand of chocolate biscuits at one supermarket, then that store can order more to keep everyone in stock. Your buying patterns could also be used to recommend particular products to you if you’re logged into the website or the app. And while discounts might simply be a sweetener to encourage people to sign up to membership cards, they do offer genuine savings when many people are struggling to afford food. 

“We use non-identifiable and aggregated data gathered through the Clubcard programme to better understand our customers so we can place them at the centre of our decision making,” a Foodstuffs spokesperson says (Clubcard is New World’s customer card; Paknsave doesn’t have one). Data collected through the Clubcard programme isn’t sold to third parties, although it is shared with partner organisations like Flybuys. 

Woolworths say that their card data is well protected, too, despite Everyday Rewards being dogged by privacy concerns, including concerns about the way the card can link your car’s licence plate to your shopping. (Update: Woolworths has clarified that license plate data is not linked to Everyday Rewards cards.) According to the Everyday Rewards privacy policy, customer data can be used “to understand shopping habits and likely preferences”, enabling direct marketing to the customer. It can also be shared with Google and Facebook for advertising and data matching, as well as analytics companies and market research providers (details aren’t provided on what providers these are, and what their privacy polices are). 

Of course, you’re only going to know this if you read the terms and conditions in full, instead of just ticking the box to say you’ve read them. 

a cctv camera on the ceiling of a supermarket
If you look up at the supermarket, you’ll spot dozens of CCTV cameras (Image: Shanti Mathias)

In person, customers have to opt-in to using the card. This can feel galling given non-member prices can be as much as 1.6x more than member prices for items like canned tomatoes. For people who shop online, there’s no choice at all: Woolworths’ online ordering systems are now completely integrated with Everyday Rewards, so that you can’t order online without being signed up. New World online shopping is also integrated with Clubcard. 

“We have to ask if consumers are getting value for the data they’re generating,” says Gunasekara of the Privacy Foundation. 

Gunasekara says that companies should be trying to minimise the data they gather from customers, and that the data that is collected should be reasonable. You can’t get online shopping delivered without giving the company your address, for instance – but do they really need to know your gender identity? 

supermarket shelves with a big everyday rewards sign saying 25% less on it
Reward card discounts are a sweetener – but your personal information is even more valuable (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Once data has been gathered, it needs to be securely stored, which can be a liability for companies, because if the data is valuable to them, it’s valuable to others. Recent data breaches in New Zealand and overseas have targeted DNA data, vaccination information and personal loan accounts, and those are just the ones that are high-profile enough to be reported on. (Both supermarket chains say data security is important to them. “We have cybersecurity measures, encryption, access controls as well as administrative measures such as robust policies and procedures for security, data and privacy,” a Woolworths spokesperson says.)

While data generated during your weekly grocery shop might seem less important than information about your health or finances – surely your personal craving for balsamic vinegar chips doesn’t mean much? – it’s powerful in aggregate. Dubbed “surveillance capitalism”, the ability to collect, store and use data at big volumes has been enabled by digital technology, and Facebook and Google are some of the world’s most profitable businesses because of how much information they have about what people are into. Supermarkets are only doing what all these other businesses did first.

Loyalty cards are only one piece of the bigger puzzle of surveillance. Neither supermarket chain confirmed how many CCTV cameras they have on average, but in Australia, that number is 62. The future of supermarkets likely has more cameras, not less: Foodstuffs is currently trialling a technology that allows facial recognition in stores for trespassed customers, and Woolworths is adding extra cameras to self checkouts to ensure items are scanned correctly.

a sign at a supermarket informing people that there is a camera trial at the self service checkout
A sign informs supermarket patrons a camera trial is going on – but when supermarkets are your main choice for food, can you meaningfully consent? (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Supermarkets aren’t the only companies that use CCTV: there are at least 10,000 publicly owned CCTV cameras in New Zealand and as many as 400,000 privately owned ones. But supermarkets are different because they provide daily, essential nourishment – something much harder to avoid than a targeted ad for a fancy face cream chasing you across the internet. “The kind of leverage these companies have to collect information is very one-sided,” Gunasekara says. You need food, and in many places one supermarket or the other is the only place to get it, so privacy concerns come second to necessary sustenance. 

Given how widespread surveillance is, Frank’s persistence in using fake names for his Everyday Rewards card seems almost quaint, one small effort at resisting a system that takes a torrent of customer information as a given. Even as someone exceptionally aware of privacy violations, he can’t resist the discounts from an Everyday Rewards card. Think of all the people who are truly struggling to afford groceries. Is a choice to give up some privacy in exchange for slightly cheaper food a choice at all? 

In the digital world, the data harvesting and surveillance we have been putting up with for decades is silent and seamless. At the supermarket, it’s much more in-your-face. There it is, in the black eyes of the CCTV cameras. There it is, in the weekly email of recommended products from New World, your face briefly blinking on a screen before being deleted if it’s not a match. There it is, when you’re swiping your rewards card at the self-checkout machine, handing over your personal data before you can take your food home. 

Could the increasingly surveilled supermarket be the catalyst that finally makes us care about our privacy?

*Name has been changed to protect – you guessed it – privacy. 

This article has been updated to clarify that Woolworths does not link license plate data to Everyday Rewards cards.

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