The Telegraph – Google plan to track shoppers’ loyalty cards criticised by privacy groups

As originally published in the Telegraph on 01/08/17

Google is tracking shoppers on the high street by harvesting loyalty card data about their purchases, a move that has sparked criticism from privacy campaigners.

The technology giant will collect spending data from bricks-and-mortar retailers under a scheme set to be launched this year, monitoring consumers’ purchases to test how effective its online adverts are.

By following British shoppers’ use of loyalty schemes such as supermarket points cards and matching them with web users’ browsing history, Google hopes to prove that its lucrative internet adverts can lead to purchases on the high street.

A similar programme introduced in the US, which uses credit and debit card payment data, has become the subject of a legal battle, with campaigners attacking Google for keeping customers in the dark and raising security concerns.

Privacy groups have called for retailers to come clean about when personal information is being shared with Google, warning that European data rules coming into law next year will force them to be more transparent.

Google only requires retailers’ privacy policies to say that data is being shared with third parties, instead of explicitly informing them that their personal information is being shared with the company.

Google, which last year made £60 billion in advertising revenue, began trialling the technology with a small number of retailers in May. A spokesman said yesterday that it is now planning a full launch of the programme later this year, allowing any retailer in the UK with a loyalty card scheme to enroll.

The technology uses algorithms to match loyalty cards to Google profiles, which are based on search queries, YouTube videos and the use of its mobile apps. This way, it can determine if someone who has seen or clicked on an internet advert has followed it up with an offline purchase, a major breakthrough in proving that online adverts are effective.

Google said the data is encrypted and anonymised, so that an individual’s personal information is not shared with Google directly, and consumers do not see adverts targeted based on their spending. “We never share any personal information about the users with advertisers for this product — we only report aggregated, anonymised numbers,” a spokesman said.

However, concerns have been raised that Google’s secrecy over the technology for processing data means users have no assurances that their information is safe.

This week, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a legal complaint with American regulators urging them to investigate a parallel programme that uses payment card data.

Google is not tracking payment cards in the UK, where privacy laws are stricter, but pressure groups said even the loyalty scheme programme could fall foul of data protection laws due to be introduced next year.

The General Data Protection Regulation will force companies to be more transparent about how personal data is obtained, shared and processed, and can result in multi-million pound fines if breached.

A spokesman for Big Brother Watch said: “It is all well and good for customers to be told that their data will be shared with third parties but what does that actually mean? We rarely have any idea that a third party could mean a multinational behemoth like Google.

“Next May new data protection regulations will be enforced. Companies will need to be transparent with people about how their data is used. Those that share our shopping transaction data with Google would be wise make that clear rather than allowing them to hide behind ‘third party’ status. We should know who is analysing our data and be given the control to deny access without a denial of service.”