This industry-wide trend of data mining and subsequent analysis is disturbing on two fronts. First, the techniques retailers use to monitor and record information about us is becoming increasingly invasive. Every single tidbit of information you provide a store or social network or, now, Google is recorded and stored away forever. The only way to shop “off the grid” is to pay for everything in cash while simultaneously refusing to sign anything or use any coupon that can be used to reveal your information. And sometimes, even that doesn’t guarantee you aren’t being watched. Last year, Wal-Mart began placing RFID chips on all of its clothes. The chips are designed to help workers keep the inventory in order, but privacy advocates have pointed out that since the radio transmissions can’t be turned off even after they’re removed, they could theoretically be used to record a customer’s identity and shopping habits. “There are two things you really don’t want to tag, clothing and identity documents, and ironically that’s where we are seeing adoption,” said Katherine Albrecht, founder of a group called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. “The inventory guys may be in the dark about this, but there are a lot of corporate marketers who are interested in tracking people as they walk sales floors.”
Albrecht’s concerns are a bit unfounded, but not because the potential isn’t there. The reason why Wal-Mart won’t track you with RFID chips is because your smart phone is already doing that work for them. Every time you use Wal-Mart’s – or Target’s, or Amazon’s, or Barnes and Noble’s – cell phone app to redeem a coupon or browse products, your phone transmits a full log of your activity to the company database. This data is then used in conjunction with your purchase patterns to help analyze your behavior. However, RFID chips have been useful recording devices for another popular product credit cards. At the moment, EMV credit cards, as well as phone-based mobile wallets, are capable of recording your entire purchase history. So even if you don’t have a phone, you still aren’t safe.
The second major concern that the Big Brother mentality raises is what exactly these retailers intend to do with the bounty of data that they mine. Advances in neuroscience have enabled scientists to study exactly what influences our decision-making (by studying brain activity in rats, for example), and what they’ve discovered is that we’re creatures dominated by habit. Once we figure out a successful routine, brain activity drops and it becomes much, much harder to steer us away from our original decision. As a result, companies are no longer trying to market a product so much as they’re trying to condition a habit. They’re studying your behavior in order to build a promotional campaign specifically designed to condition you to shop at their store every single time you make a purchase. It’s called operant conditioning, and it’s working on you right now.