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Supermarket loyalty cards a way to 'blackmail' the poor - Miller

Tuesday, January 6th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Poorer people are being effectively “blackmailed” into handing over their personal data by store cards that offer vital discounts, the head of a parliamentary committee has said.

Andrew Miller, chair of the science and technology committee, said signing up for a store card – and handing over personal details for use by supermarket chains – may be a choice for some, but is an “economic necessity” for others.

Mr Miller (Lab – Ellesmere Port and Neston) told Cable.co.uk: “If we chose not to have a store card because we don’t want Tesco to know how much gin we drink and we’re concerned they may share it with an improper third party, you and I can afford not to sign up for one of their store cards.

“For most of my constituents – not necessarily poor people, but people who work their socks off in industry and commerce in Ellesmere Port – the discounts offered by people like Tesco for signing up to their store cards are such that it’s not a question of choice, it’s an economic necessity to sign up to it.

“So that part of it worries me because in a sense people are blackmailed, sort of ‘sign up to my card or else’, and the ‘or else’ is you don’t get the discounts.

“And when you look at the difference it makes on your groceries, and particularly fuel, you’re talking very, very significant sums and that means people are being encouraged to share data in a way where they have no choice.”

'Unfair practice'

According to Mr Miller, it is not a simple case of “walking away” from the potential deals and going elsewhere.

“Most people can’t do that and I think that’s a very unfair practice – not unfair because it’s a card, but because there isn’t the degree of control one would want to see over what happens to the data,” he said.

He said if the data mined through store cards was purely used for marketing purposes, there would not be a problem, but it was hard to be sure that that was the case.

By combining the vast amounts of data gathered online through different methods, it is not difficult to identify people, he added.

Mr Miller’s comments come after the science and technology committee released a report in November calling for social media companies to simplify their impenetrable terms and conditions that allow access to people’s personal data.

The committee said the documents are written in ways that are more suitable for American court rooms than average users and suggested an international Kitemark system showing which social media sites are treating data responsibly.

Education is also important, Mr Miller told Cable.co.uk, with the need for teachers and parents to have a better understanding of the consequences of sharing data online, and helping educate children about them.

Anonymity

But Mr Miller said the idea that it is specifically the internet that is threatening someone’s anonymity is a misconception, as communities have always known personal details about people.

“As the world has effectively shrunk with our ability to travel and to communicate, the physical parameters of data sharing have grown and grown and grown and become faster and faster,” he said.

“But the underlying principles are actually not that different to those that existed all those years ago.

“So I don’t start from the point of view of panic or arguing that I have a right to be anonymous. In my circle, I have never been anonymous. In the street I lived in as a kid, the nosey parker down the road knew exactly who I was, the beat bobby knew exactly who I was.

“So this notion that we need a concept of anonymity is actually alien to the life that we’ve always lived.”

But he said there are limits to what both the private sector and the state should be able to do with people’s data.

“The key, I think, is in creating a model that has the maximum transparency so that if you hold information about me that you’re going to use, I ought to be entitled to see that information.

"I ought to have rights of determining some control over what is done with information about me."

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