Pervasive e-receipts: handy or ominous tracking?

When visiting San Jose for the CHI conference last year, I noticed that coffee shops and cafes tend to issue only e-receipts: tap your details into a little screen, and your receipt gets emailed to you.

For the traveller who has to submit their expenses, and anyone who’s ever mislaid an Important Paper from a stack of random bits of paper (*cough*), this seems like a great idea. Technology can easily support purchase-tracking, it’s more eco-friendly, stores are more accountable. From the seller point of view, they get the opportunity to get some lightweight user feedback.

Screenshot of "how was your experience" with a choice of a smiley face or an unhappy face

Lightweight email feedback

What’s the problem?

Sadly, it seems that once again technology is being used in a “dark pattern”: piggybacking a minor benefit to the customer with much greater benefits to the seller. See store loyalty cards, for example.

The problem is the asymmetry of information the system creates. I may want to print out receipts for expense claims, and have the security of knowing that my email can store receipts in case of problems so I have an archived proof of purchase. I may even want to track my own spending, but the reality is I probably won’t. The seller, however, is tracking my spending and trying to figure out patterns in what I buy and when.

How do you use my data?

The problem is pervasive: as well as e-receipts in shops, I have several contactless travel cards (Oyster, Swift) because it’s cheaper and way more convenient than searching for actual exact bits of cash (I’m looking at you, Birmingham buses, I’m looking at you). I am vaguely aware that Oyster can therefore track me across London; I have no idea what Swift do since it’s still a bit clunky but I imagine they would very much like to track me.

A key issue is the lack of clarity over the purpose and extent of tracking. Freedom of Information requests don’t always make it clear. Oyster records are discarded after 8 weeks, but may or may not be handed over to the policy. It’s not clear what they do with the data, although they are concerned about infringing privacy … And as The Guardian points out, larger retailers can use the info they gather to track your movements. The holy grail from The Guardian article seems to be seamless integration between online and real-life shops, so they can use the tracking to identify what you’ve been browsing to present it to you. While that might in some circumstances be useful – finding items in real-life stores is irritatingly difficult – who wants their idle browsing history to be freely available to the tablet-wielding shop assistant approaching you?

Marketers know more about your behaviour than you do

The bottom line is that for-profit organisations have a bottom line. They exist to maximise profits, and understanding more about consumer habits and triggers helps them to set up the conditions that make purchases more likely. If consumers are not aware of the triggers – and habits are part of automatic behaviours that can be triggered without attracting conscious awareness- they are more at the mercy of the marketeers. We need clarity around how the data is being used, and the opportunity to opt out of that usage even if we accept the email receipt.

At the very least, if someone is mining my data to discover my behaviour patterns, I’d like to know what they are, to give me the choice to try and change them.

Fat finger problem

Plus it’s luddite and error-prone to have to laboriously spell out your email address while waitFingerprinting for an assistant to type it in. Typos in email addresses mean there is no traceability: how can I return a faulty item if ‘pinfec”s got my receipt? Shops need a rapid-entry system for identifying people. We are likely to end up with fingerprint payments and identifications: it’s super easy, hard to lose (I’d like to be able to start my car or unlock my bike with my fingerprint please – imagine how easy that makes a trip to the beach) and there’s a lot of precedent in India so the tech is in place.

Good for democracy because people can uniquely identify themselves to vote without requiring paperwork or complex registration structures. Not so good for privacy: it’s way harder to opt out or claim you don’t have a loyalty card if the shop assistant can see your fingers …

 

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