Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Defective dossier

Failing to get the straight poop

One of my favorite restaurants offers—pushes, even—a “frequent-flier” program that offers discounts to its regulars as well as e-mailed coupons and birthday greetings and promotional materials in your mail. I'd rather not, thank you, despite having received the sign-up forms about a dozen times over the last couple of years (usually whenever some new server has yet to learn that Professor Z is not a joiner). I do not want to stuff yet another card in my wallet, get more junk mail in my mail box, or more spam in my e-mail.

And I sure don't want them encircling my table on my birthday and singing to me.

The regular prices on the menu are reasonable and I am fortunate enough not to have to cut every possible corner (or I'd stay home on Saturday mornings, scramble my own eggs, and read my newspapers at my dining room table instead of at my usual corner booth).

I admit, however, that I do already have a couple of these special “loyalty cards.” One is from Borders Books and the other is from Safeway. The Safeway card was a fluke. One day the checker asked me for my discount card and I replied that I didn't have one. Since he recognized me as a semi-regular, he was surprised. He reached into a drawer under the cash register, pulled out a card, swiped it through the card reader, and handed it to me. He didn't collect any data from me. No name, no birth date, no address, no phone number. Nothing.

I stuck the card in my wallet and it's resided there ever since, one of the least intrusive loyalty cards ever. The less I carry around, the happier I am, but the Safeway card takes little space and its discounts have added up without snooping into my life (unless Safeway has figured out another way to tap into my personal business).

But what if they did? What would the consequences be? One possibility provided me with a peculiar moment of amusement while reading The Clan Corporate, the third volume in “The Merchant Princes” series by Charles Stross, a writer whose work I always enjoy. An undercover agent from a parallel universe accidentally exposes his presence in our world through an act of carelessness:
He doesn't own an automobile or a pet dog or a television, or subscribe to any newspapers or magazines. He uses his credit card to shop for groceries at the local Safeway twice a week, and here he screwed up—he has a loyalty card for the discounts. It turns out that he never buys toilet paper or light bulbs. However he does buy new movie releases on DVD, which is kind of odd for someone who doesn't own a DVD player or a TV or a computer.
Busted! Because a Safeway loyalty card showed a pattern of purchases at odds with a normal existence. No toilet paper or light bulbs. Obviously a visitor from a parallel dimension.

To be fair, the person being described has other peculiarities that had drawn the attention of the spy agency that ends up snooping through his purchasing record at Safeway. Too bad for him that he didn't have a blind card like I have.

And good for me that I do.

I have, you see, never purchased toilet paper from Safeway. Never. A few light bulbs, yes. But no toilet paper.

I'm not sure why the inter-dimensional agent didn't need bathroom tissue—easier to pop over to the loo in his home universe?—but I can explain my own situation. I just hope our national spy agencies find it persuasive and don't subject me to hideous medical experiments on the theory that I have world-walking powers embedded in my brain tissue.

It's simple. I go to more than one supermarket.

Shocking, I know. But it's allowed, you see, even if you have a “loyalty” card. My business is divided between two local supermarkets. Safeway is within easy walking distance in my neighborhood. The other is on my commute route between home and school. All bulky purchases are made at the store on my commute route. I have my car and a handy trunk to store things in. Plenty of room for large 9-packs of toilet tissue purchased at long intervals.

Safeway, on the other hand, is where I pick up small random items as the need arises. I stroll by on foot, think of something I need, and pick it up. No big items. Hence no multi-pack bundles of rolls of toilet paper to juggle on the walk back home or for Safeway to record in its corporate database.

So you see, I'm actually not a world-walking secret agent from a parallel dimension who is here to collect data on you people. Honest!

And I'll bet you one hundred of your Earth dollars that you can't prove otherwise.


Kathie said...

Ever been to the Azores? They're kinda like a parallel dimension -- in the best possible way, of course :-)

P.S. How 'bout them Giants?!?!?

Zeno said...

Indeed I have not, Kathie. But I'm sure you're right. Everything I've heard about them sounds like a parallel dimension to me. And the English as she is spoke is odd there, too.

The Ridger, FCD said...

My Barnes & Noble card is worth its weight in gold... er, has saved me LOTS.

But I wonder: was the guy supposed to have bought his DVD player at Safeway, too, that they were sure he didn't have one?

Zeno said...

Yes, I would be unable to turn down a B&N card if I frequented that bookstore, but I'm seldom there. I patronize an independent local bookstore first, then Borders.

As to the DVD mystery, I presume a black-bag operative broke in and cased the joint while planting bugs. (Should have searched for toilet paper while he was in.)

Dr24Hours said...

I also have none of these cards, including a bookstore card which would in fact save me a lot of money, since I like to buy hardcovers. But I don't want a sophisticated record being kept of what I purchase.

When asked why, I look them in the eye and say: "I'd rather pay more." Which I figure is slightly more polite than saying: "I don't discuss my personal financial preferences with strangers."

Rob said...

Mabus cleanup on aisle six.

On topic, you realize that they can correlate your rewards card with your credit card, right? And from there, they know pretty much everything. Unless you always pay with cash.

Kathie said...

Zeno, I suspect that Azoreans think our Portuguese dictions sounds a bit odd, too (especially because I have both a US and, thanks to years of instruction in the Brazilian sotaque, a South American accent as well)!

English has been compulsory in Azores (if not all Portuguese) schools since just after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, I believe, and nowadays English instruction starts at 3rd grade -- not that everyone gets the equivalent of an "A" in it, of course.

Then there's the pervasive worldwide influence of American pop-culture, including on the Internet, from which the Azores are hardly immune. Robert McCrum may have it exactly right, for better or worse, re the conquest of the world by "Globish."

Gene O'Pedia said...

Rob explains perfectly what I had to learn in practice (d'oh, etc). I got a Safeway card only after the clerk assured me that I did not need to enter any private information, just sign the card "Safeway Shopper" and enjoy the discounts.

So I filled out the card anonymously, and used it for my purchases that day. I paid with a credit card, as I frequently do for convenience and for the 1% rebate it gives me (not the 24% interest I'd owe if I didn't pay the card off each month).

As I was leaving with my bags, the clerk said "Thank you Mr. O'Pedia."

I assume the cash register was as perceptive as the clerk, and that the link between my credit card and Safeway card was etched in silicon for all time.

Kathie said...

On a visit to the Azores I purchased an azulejo with the legend, "Com vinagre não se apanham moscas."

The English equivalent was reportedly one of Grandma's favorite sayings: "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

A useful lesson for those who spew vitriol.

Laika said...

>On topic, you realize that they can correlate your rewards card with your credit card, right?

Came here to say that.

Singapore train passes worked the same way. You could buy one for cash, but we had it on good word that if you ever topped up the card with your bank card, then the government noted all your prior comings and goings in a database.

Zeno said...

Yeah. Rob has a point. I prefer cash for small purchases, but I'm trying to recall if I've dug out my credit card at that store. Over the last few years ... probably yes. They have my information!

If I suddenly disappear, you'll know what happened.

Kristjan Wager said...

Interestingly enough, one result of Danes having a national identity card is very strict data privacy laws, so in Denmark it is not permitted for a supermarket to store any data related to your credit card (nor to try to correlate it with any other data)

Zeno said...

You raise a good point, Kristjan. As far as privacy is concerned in the U.S., the cat is out of the bag and the big is out of the poke. It's a little late to legislative privacy, but not (I hope) too late to legislate penalties for the abuse of personal information. Data aggregation tools make it too easy to construct our individual profiles, but various proscriptions and criminal penalties might reduce the abuse of those profiles for intrusive marketing, ID theft, and harassment.