The X FilesI had an interesting experience the other morning at the grocery store. I was there to pick up a few things for New England Clam Chowder, which I’m was making for our Sunday dinner. These Sunday dinners are becoming a staple of our week now, and it’s something that I really look forward to doing each week. Last Sunday I fixed Wolfgang Puck’s Barbecue Chicken Enchiladas, which were out of this world, and this week’s menu was Emeril’s New England Clam Chowder. But all of this is beside the point isn’t it? 😛 So as I was saying, I was at the grocery store, Kroger’s to be exact, and I was ready to check out. The cashier asked me if I had a Kroger Plus card I said that I did, but that I didn’t have it on me. The lady who had checked out just before me turned back and said, “Would you like to use mine?” Somewhat stunned and at the same time pleased, I said that I did and the woman handed me her keys. I produced the fob and saved $1.00 off of my $29.00 purchase.

Now you may be asking yourself, “What the heck does this have to do with conspiracy theories?” and I’m glad you asked. 🙂 You see, some people take issue with the whole grocery store discount card idea. Why? Because when you use your discount card, your purchase is recorded and stored in a computer. The fear is that the grocery store, or any other retail establishment, is tracking your purchases and buying habits. For some this may seem like nothing more than rampant paranoia, but there is some validity to the theory.

Your purchase IS being recorded, make no doubt of that, but I don’t think that is such a big deal. In the mid 90’s the idea may have been novel, but with the advent of online shopping, the point is fairly moot. If you make a purchase from Amazon, or any other online retail establishment, your purchase has been recorded. Not only that, but Amazon also tracks what items you search for and browse within their system as well. So not just the things that you purchase, but the things you’re looking for are recorded. If you want to take it a step further, every purchase you’ve ever made with your credit cards is tracked as well, so if you have any fears about your habits being monitored I’ve probably just freaked you out big time. 😀

How is this bad though? Well, most conspiracy theorists envision a big computer that consolidates all of your purchases from the various stores you shop and that there’s a profile of you that the government can pull up at any time. What they would do with it is beyond me, but the idea alone is something that keeps a lot of people up at night. Don’t believe me? Then you need to check out the Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (C.A.S.P.I.A.N.). This organization take the concept of supermarket discount cards very seriously and feel that they are a bane of the society of America.

If that’s not scary enough, this article discusses the The Information Awareness Office, which is a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness”. To say it in plain English, this department’s job is to sift though any and all information it can get it’s hands on to locate terrorists. To quote from the article,

…in the meantime, if you?re going to be buying issues of Guns & Ammo, huge bags of fertilizer or large amounts of pita and hummus (guess which nationalities will be profiled by Total Information Awareness), you might want to get in the habit of forgoing discount card savings and paying for such purchases in cash.

While that comment does make me laugh every time that I read it, what it describes is actually quite nearly impossible. For one, every retailer uses a different database system, so the idea to trying to tie them all together would be next to impossible. Secondly, even if you could tie them all together, you’d still have the problem illustrated by the lady that checked out in front of me at Kroger’s. Garbage in = garbage out. That’s right, the fact that she allowed me to use her card means that my purchase is now co-mingled with hers and here’s the kicker – this kind of thing happens all the time.

What this means is that the data being collected is getting polluted by “kind gestures” each and every day. You forget your discount card at home and someone lends you theres, or the cashier uses hers, whatever the situation, the end result is that all this data that’s being collected is suddenly not so accurate. Ask anyone who has worked with databases that are inaccurate and they’ll tell you the value of the data is near worthless. Sure Kroger’s and every other grocery store has a whole bunch of data about what people are purchasing, but the value of that data, at least on an individual’s perspective, is not worth very much. Sure they can do some light demographics, or broad profiles, but the idea that they can pinpoint things targeted to your buying profile is pure fantasy.

And this is why conspiracy theories don’t work for me. On television, or in the movies it all works perfectly, but the real world is messy. Things don’t work like they should and if they do work, then people will figure out a way to screw them up. So where a conspiracy theorist sees a computer geek having access to all of my personal information at his fingertips, I see the same geek tearing out his hair because all he really has is junk. 8)