Whose data is it anyway?

My ambivalence about the collection and use of data about my shopping behaviour is the reason I don’t belong to any supermarket loyalty reward scheme. This ambivalence is driven as much by mistrust of these corporations’ use of my data as it is by irritation with my limited negotiation power when it comes to setting the value of my data. In this regard I am the quintessential ‘self aware consumer’ in a mature capitalist economy- cynical about the motives and desires of the other players in the game but still angling to do as well as I can out of the system.

It was Sainsbury’s unilateral decision to devalue the Nectar points its already issued that got me thinking. Why wasn’t there greater outcry? They gave plenty of notice; they announced their plans about a year in advance. That’s more than enough time for motivated members of the scheme to organise a protest campaign. Some experts have put the muted outcry down to a reported decline in loyalty scheme participation- too few people care. That makes sense but I don’t think that’s the main reason.

I think very effective marketing is the primary reason for the meek acceptance of Sainsbury’s decision. From their inception and introduction, loyalty scheme rewards have been very effectively marketed to us as ‘benefits’; something extra that corporations give out to ‘loyal’ customers because big chain-outlet retailers care. As opposed to payment for a whole load of very useful behavioural data so they can more effectively sell me stuff or sell my data on. It’s their data, their points and their scheme, so they get to do what they want with it.

I’m cynical enough to be unsurprised by the behaviour of corporations but I am surprised by the lack of savvy on the part of consumers. I know, I know, describing people as ‘consumers’ in this context is reductionist and there are all sorts of other (arguably, more important) reasons we need to do some good, hard thinking about the value and use of our data. But I figure that a more utilitarian take on the use of our shopping data is appropriate given that its generated via commercial activity, plus it makes for easier analysis.

So why is it that a generation of consumers that ‘know the cost of everything and the value of nothing’ appear to be really slow to grasp the value of its data when the quid pro quo is so obvious? Why are we content with the meagre rewards offerings available. And if we’re missing it for something as obvious as shopping, what chance do we have of holding other users of our data: banks, researchers and even government, to account?

Statutory bodies like the FTC are scrutinising data collectors’ practices when it comes to secondary uses of people’s data. And that’s good but I do not expect this work to meaningfully shift the narrative in the way I’ve described. This is why I’m really excited by the emergence of things like GOV.UK Verify and Mydex. Not just because their implementation is interesting (you can find out about how the GOV.UK Verify hub works here) but because I hope their emergence will usher in a change in societal thinking about data ownership and user control with regards to the use of said data. I’m hoping for the emergence of an ecosystem of Personal Data Storage companies and organisations who understand the much richer opportunities that greater data portability could offer them.

The scale and variety of the retail sector (especially grocery shopping) make it a very good place to start. I wonder if any of the big retailers have the vision to drive this? I doubt it, I think it’ll be forced upon them by disruptive outsiders. That’s sad because they’ll miss out the opportunity to get in early on shaping the next phase of the consumerist relationship. Then again, that is the capitalist way.

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