Fight for your privacy when shopping by cash

By Ronald Watts

Do shop assistants demand your personal details when you are paying by cash?

Just before Christmas 2017, I attempted to make three rather minor purchases – in Myer, Harvey Norman, and The Good Guys. All the items were small and portable and I was paying cash.

In all three cases, the shop assistants refused to proceed with the sale unless I handed over personal details – name, address, phone number, and email address. In the case of Myer, much more was demanded (for the purchase of a cup and saucer!).

When I queried the need, I was told it was necessary for a warranty. I replied that, thank you, but I would rely on the warranty under Australian Consumer Law, which just required me to produce a receipt. The three shop assistants refused to proceed with the sale. I suggested to The Good Guys shop assistant that he enter any old data in order to let the sale go through, but was told, rather piously, that this would be most improper.

In each case, I walked out and made the purchases at competing stores without this problem.

After consulting various colleagues, I resolved to make a complaint to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), but was warned by one, a renowned privacy expert, that the outcome would be less than impressive.

On lodging the complaint online, I received an email saying it might take many months, and I would have to exhaust the process of complaining directly to the retailer before they would process it.

I pointed out that this would require disclosing some of the personal data demanded by the retailers that led to the complaint. Nevertheless, I did lodge online complaints – in the case of The Good Guys, using a generic enquiry point that later resulted in the company denying that they ever received it.  The OAIC officer responsible for my complaint was, however, courteous and helpful.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that the websites of all three companies claim that they adhere to the privacy principles of the OAIC’s non-binding Australian Privacy Principles (APPs). The most relevant of these is APP 3.2, which states inter alia:

…an organisation, may only collect this [personal] information where it is reasonably necessary for the organisation’s functions or activities.

Clearly, all three contravened their own claim to adhere to this policy principle.

All three companies eventually responded in a way that can be summarised as:

  1. An apology – the demand was unwarranted.
  2. They would promote the company policies of adherence to OAIC privacy principles to staff, and increase training.

At this point, the OAIC decided no further action was necessary and closed the case.

I am not optimistic that the demands for personal data will cease.

My chief beef, and the reason why I went to the trouble (lasting over four months) is that I have no confidence in the security of retailers’ data. It is probably in some database in Mumbai or Manila, and quite likely to be on-sold to market data brokers. It’s a recipe for identity theft, and the data is for their benefit, not mine.

And I think it is an important freedom to be able to shop anonymously.

The lessons:

  1. Please, don’t hand over your details when you don’t have to. Every customer who resists makes it easier for those of us who prefer to shop anonymously.
  2. Loyalty schemes, which institutionalise surrender of personal data, are a hoax on the consumer. The more disloyal you are, the better the deals you get.
  3. Australian privacy legislation is weak, especially compared to the EU – self-regulation is no regulation. An unjustifiable demand for personal data should be penalised as heavily as a failure to honour Australian Consumer Law warranties, and publicised just as widely.

ENDS

Ronald Watts is a CLA member from NSW whose perseverance in standing up for liberties and rights is an example to all of us.

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