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Mined Consumer Purchasing Records Used in Court

I would venture to say that all stores who have loyalty card programs have a privacy policy where they reassure consumers that our information will not be sold or shared with third parties. When you sign onto search engine reward programs, you click off that you’ve read and agreed with the Terms of Service which includes a privacy policy of some sort. Credit Cards also send out their privacy policies every time they are updated, or annually. Sometimes it almost seems overkill that with everything we sign up for and sign onto we have to click that we’ve read the terms and conditions of service/privacy policy, and we agree with it.

Yet if you take a closer look at privacy policies, they don’t necessarily save you from having your information given or sold to other companies. As Suba from Wealth Informatics explains, a privacy policy still allows companies a lot of freedom with your information. They are allowed to give your information to other brands in their family of products and “partner” companies, they can give your information to any company they merge with or which buys them out, and they can still legally sell your information so long as your name and address is taken out of it. Just check out Safeway’s privacy policy under “Disclosing Personal Information” for an example of how this works. Privacy policies for consumer monitoring also will not save you from having your data subpoenaed for a court case.

I am not a lawyer and do not understand all of the intricacies of the privacy policy, but I have found examples that an everyday consumer like myself would have thought were protected by a privacy policy. Let’s take a look below of how consumer monitoring data has been used against us.

FBI Mines Grocery Store Data to Find Terrorists

In 2005 and 2006 FBI agents mined through data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in order to look for people who purchased Middle Eastern foods. This program was short-lived because the FBI realized that it was ridiculous to profile people according to the food that they ate. Still, the information was handed over because the grocery store and/or credit card companies had monitored consumer purchasing behavior.

FDEA Subpoenas Purchase Records of Drug Dealer

Washington Post reported in 1998 that Smith's Food and Drug Centers in Arizona had released information to the Drug Enforcement Administration on several occasions. In one example, it was information pertaining to people who purchased large amounts of plastic bags, as this could be an indicator of a drug dealer. Special Agent James Molesa explained that investigators can use the files to establish the whereabouts of a suspect and find clues about his behavior. He also stated that this information, coupled with other gathered information, is enough to create evidence.

Using Consumer Data In Personal Injury and Family Law Court Cases

A man sued Von supermarket after slipping on yogurt in a Safeway and shattering his kneecap making him unable to work. During settlement negotiations, the mediator for the case revealed that Von’s reviewed the man’s grocery store purchase records to establish that he was an alcoholic and if the case went to court, they were prepared to use this against him. The plaintiff settled because of this.

In another court case, one ex-spouse used another ex-spouse’s purchasing records to make the case that they could afford a higher alimony payment. This was based off of all of the fine wine purchases.

Firefighter Falsely Accused of Arson Based on Grocery Records

In 2004, firefighter Phillip Scott Lyons was falsely accused of arson when his grocery store records indicated he had purchased the same fire starter product used to set fire to his home. This arrest was made despite Lt. Lyons putting the fire out himself and calling 911. His arrest took place two and a half weeks later after an investigation turned up some questionable things found around his home on top of his Safeway loyalty card records which showed the fire starter purchase he made one month earlier. He was acquitted five months later when the man responsible came forward and confessed.

While these are just a few examples of how consumer data can be used against you, and in most of these cases using someone’s consumer data was in an effort to bring them to justice, it does add some hesitancy in the collection of consumer data. If someone can subpoena grocery store data in order to raise their ex-husband’s alimony, or if the FBi can get their hands on how much cheese you purchased over the last two years, then who is to say healthcare companies can’t get their hands on the non-nutritional foods and cigarettes you may be purchasing? Perhaps they will then start using this information to raise your premium.  Where does it all stop?

Bottom line: if the data is collected, then someone can get their hands on it with or without a privacy policy.

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.

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Monday 26th of September 2011

All though disturbing, I find this post a bit amusing! I actually avoided the food store cards for years because I didn't want my food buying habits recorded. I don't know what I was worried about because I don't buy plasic bags or alcohol-I found you on www.lifeandmyfinances,and I'll be back for more:D


Monday 26th of September 2011

Hi Brenda! Thanks for stopping by. I had never actually thought about people following my purchase records....


Sunday 25th of September 2011

With proliferation of Facebook and other social networks, privacy's become a thing of the past.

The governments will be lax on enforcing privacy, because this helps them immensely!

Jesse @ BP

Saturday 24th of September 2011

It's nuts how much data is kept about you now. Googling yourself is a good start, but some records aren't public until they need to be. Best to just be on your best behavior all the time :)

novel investor

Friday 23rd of September 2011

This is a bit disturbing. When your going to court or being arresting because of your normal shopping habits it's probably gone to far.


Thursday 22nd of September 2011

Wow, that is very "big brother"! Technology has many many societal benefits, but the collateral damage can be quite drastic. The story about the house fire is partially disturbing because it basically shows that people a watching your ever move. Scary stuff