Labeling the consumer: how mindless ID-scanning can hurt customers

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Photo: Hryck. / Todd

Pennsylvania is sometimes referred to as "East Utah" in regards to its legendarily restrictive alcohol laws. Where else in the United States were you forced to buy a minimum of 24 beers from a 'Beer Distributor' if you wanted to take a drink home? Until recently, one could buy no beer from grocery stores or gas stations--just bars (and bar prices) or a box of two dozen from the nearest opaque-windowed distributor.

As Pennsylvania loosens up on its laws, some grocery stores are getting into the act. Giant Eagle and Wegmans now sell beer at a couple of Pennsylvania stores, albeit in restrictive "pseudo-bars" housed within the big box. Shop-N-Save is not far behind. They are glad to tell you that they aren't a grocery store, but a bar that is within a grocery store. This semantic dance upsets the beer distributors.

One of the main arguments against sales of beer and wine in a grocery store is that stores are supposedly notoriously lenient and give out alcohol to anyone. The other argument against opening up sales is that selling beer at gas stations promotes drunk driving. To counter the myth of 'leniency,' Giant Eagle and Wegmans have a 100 percent compliance policy that states all customers must scan their ID for every beer purchase. This is not a PA law, but a store policy designed to show due-diligence. But it's a solution that opens up a nasty can of worms in regards to personal privacy.

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At Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh, every single customer, without exception, is required to scan their ID in this device, the Z22 CounterTop Id Checker. I asked at the store if they could simply type in my date of birth into the system, and they said no. I raised privacy concerns and was told that "if you want your beer, you scan your ID." Their policy is not to check 100% of IDs, it is to scan 100% of the IDs. Therein lies a problem: there is much more than my date of birth on my ID.

I called the Giant Eagle corporate office and was met with friendly assurance that they only collect and store this information to 'protect themselves' from lawsuits. I requested that they call me back and tell me what information they actually store and have not heard back from them. I think they are afraid to tell me what they keep, so I thought I would look into it myself.

While retailers are clearly not interested in identity theft, I do believe they have not thought through the possible consequences of gathering and retaining such wide-ranging data about their customers.

What could one potentially do with the Z22?

First, the data may be collected and retained. It may be paired with information from the concurrent credit card transaction. The Federal Reserve bank of Boston notes that to avoid identity theft, they recommend:

"Out of the Home - Shopping and Services When you sign a credit card slip, avoid putting your address, telephone number, or driver's license number on it."

But in the situation at hand, you don't write it down at all--you hand it over in a conveniently exportable format. The device is in fact designed to export the data for a variety of purposes.

Bear in mind that the information is time-stamped. There's no reason to think that credit card data is not also time-stamped. Name, number, DOB, billing address ... just enough information to facilitate identity theft should the data not be properly secured. A person with a gripe, someone in financial trouble who knows the value of the information, or an outside data breach would do the trick. If you store the information, it will come out. Remember TJMAXX?

Second, the data could be used for marketing to customers. This is encouraged by the device's manufacturer and easy to do--you can even create your own mailing labels with the system! As you are an existing 'customer,' it doesn't count as spam. 100% ID compliance means you get accurate addresses, too.   

Third, the data would allow retailers to maintain personal notes about people, perhaps by integrating the data into customer service records. While this may help serve customers, especially those with special needs, the potential for abuse is obvious. Do you have known 'trouble makers?" Imagine the fun you can have with 'tagging' your customers.

Fourth, it means employees don't need to use their heads anymore. It encourages 'zero tolerance' thinking, immune to common sense. After all, all they need to do is look at the scanner. It is completely foolproof? Reassigning information to a magnetic strip is impossible, right?

It could be worse: we could have automated wine kiosk robots that take pictures and breathalyze customers too. Since this is a new policy, I hope that these grocery stores reconsider that in 'protecting' themselves, they may expose their customers.  Common sense might say that any person over 30 would not be absolutely required to scan their ID. Then again, common sense is in short supply today. Update: On March 5 I received both an email and a personal call from Giant Eagle. The email stated that Giant Eagle only stores DOB, which is not true, as the caller who is involved with implementation of the scanners stated that there is a whole host of information stored on those machines. The caller was very sympathetic with privacy concerns, admitted that they had a problem, and stated that the company now has plans to remove all of these specific scanners by May.

The caller stated that Giant Eagle is now in talks with IBM to allow the cash registers themselves to scan the ID, perform a rudimentary ID check for age verification, but *not* store information in the system. He stated that the new system will be rolled out in April in Pennsylvania and all of the scanners that store information will be gone by May.

The caller also stated that they are modifying the current ID scanners with PINs so that even in the event of theft, the scanners will not export data. Additionally, he stated that all Giant Eagle would accept a passport as ID without the necessity of scanning.

This is good news as it seems that they have indeed listened, but there is one slight problem.

One of the initial reasons for storing all of this information was to prove 'due diligence.' I was told that the stores specifically store the information in case of lawsuits so that they can prove that the purchaser is above the legal age.

So it seems that they are listening, but the end result remains to be seen. It was a quick response I must admit. The email from the "Social media" representative was misleading, but the caller from corporate seemed informed and understood the privacy concerns.