Everyone’s Got a “Surveillance Score” and It Can Cost You BIG Money

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In these Orwellian times, when it is revealed that yet another government agency is spying on us in yet another way, most of us aren’t one bit surprised. Being surveilled nearly everywhere we go (and even in our own homes) has become the norm, unfortunately.

Yesterday, it was revealed that the NSA improperly collected Americans’ call and text logs in November 2017 and in February and October 2018 – just months after the agency claimed it was going to delete the 620 million-plus call detail records it already had stockpiled.

But this article isn’t about that.

It is about something far more insidious.

When it comes to spying on people, the government has competition.

The Chinese government is currently implementing a social credit system to monitor its 1.3 billion citizens (China already has 200 million public surveillance cameras). Facial recognition technology and personal data from cell phones and digital transactions are being used to collect intimate details about people’s lives, including their purchasing habits and whom they socialize with.

The gathered data is used to create mandatory social credit ratings for every citizen. These ratings will score citizens’ “general worthiness” and provide those with higher scores opportunities like access to jobs, loans, and travel. Those with lower scores will not have access to those opportunities.

While the United States government has yet to implement such a system, companies in the country are, reports The Hill:

Consumer advocates are pushing regulators to investigate what they paint as a shadowy online practice where retailers use consumer information collected by data brokers to decide how much to charge individual customers or the quality of service they’ll offer.

#REPRESENT, a public interest group run by the Consumer Education Foundation in California, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Monday asking the agency to investigate what the group is calling “surveillance scoring” of customers’ financial status or creditworthiness. (source)

Companies are using Secret Surveillance Scores to evaluate you.

The opening paragraphs of the 38-page complaint are chilling:

Major American corporations, including online and retail businesses, employers and landlords are using Secret Surveillance Scores to charge some people higher prices for the same product than others, to provide some people with better customer services than others, to deny some consumers the right to purchase services or buy or return products while allowing others to do so and even to deny people housing and jobs.

The Secret Surveillance Scores are generated by a shadowy group of privacy-busting firms that operate in dark recesses of the American marketplace. They collect thousands or even tens of thousands of intimate details of each person’s life – enough information, it is thought, to literally predetermine a person’s behavior – either directly or through data brokers. Then, in what is euphemistically referred to as “data analytics,” the firms’ engineers write software algorithms that instruct computers to parse a person’s data trail and develop a digital “mug shot.” Eventually, that individual profile is reduced to a number – the score – and transmitted to corporate clients looking for ways to take advantage of, or even avoid, the consumer. The scoring system is automatic and instantaneous. None of this is disclosed to the consumer: the existence of the algorithm, the application of the Surveillance Score or even that they have become the victim of a technological scheme that just a few years ago would appear only in a dystopian science fiction novel. (source)

These scores are used to discriminate based on income.

Written by lawyers Laura Antonini, the policy director of the Consumer Education Foundation, and Harvey Rosenfield, who leads the foundation, the complaint highlights four areas in which companies are using surveillance scoring: pricing, customer service, fraud prevention, and housing and employment.

“This is a way for companies to discriminate against users based on income and wealth,” Antonini told The Hill. “It can range from monetary harm or basic necessities of life that you’re not getting.”

Antonini and Rosenfield argue that the practices outlined in the complaint are illegal – and that consumers are largely unaware that they’re being secretly evaluated in ways that can influence how much they pay online.

“The ability of corporations to target, manipulate and discriminate against Americans is unprecedented and inconsistent with the principles of competition and free markets,” the complaint reads. “Surveillance scoring promotes inequality by empowering companies to decide which consumers they want to do business with and on what terms, weeding out the people who they deem less valuable. Such discrimination is as much a threat to democracy as it is to a free market.”

Stores are using this scoring system to charge you higher prices.

Here’s more detail, from The Hill:

The filing points to a 2014 Northeastern University study exploring the ways that companies like Home Depot and Walmart use consumer data to customize prices for different customers. Rosenfield and Antonini replicated the study using an online tool that compares prices that they’re charged on their own computers with their own data profiles versus the prices charged to a user browsing sites through an anonymized computer server with no data history.

What they found was that Walmart and Home Depot were offering lower prices on a number of products to the anonymous computer. In the search results for “white paint” on Home Depot’s website, Rosenfield and Antonini were seeing higher prices for six of the first 24 items that popped up.

In one example, a five-gallon tub of Glidden premium exterior paint would have cost them $119 compared with $101 for the anonymous computer.

A similar pattern emerged on Walmart’s website. The two lawyers found the site was charging them more on a variety of items compared with the anonymous web tool, including paper towels, highlighters, pens and paint.

One paper towel holder cost $10 less for the blank web user. (source)

To see screenshots of different “personalized” prices shown for items from Home Depot and Walmart, please see pages 12-16 of the complaint. The examples presented demonstrate just how much these inflated prices for common household goods can really add up.

The travel industry is particularly sneaky.

A few days ago, we reported on hidden fees that could be costing you big bucks. The travel industry is a particularly large offender when it comes to sneaky fees, and they are also implicated in this scheme:

Travelocity. Software developer Christian Bennefeld, founder of etracker.com and eBlocker.com, did a sample search for hotel rooms in Paris on Travelocity in 2017 using his eBlocker device, which “allows him to act as if he were searching from two different” computers. Bennefeld found that when he performed the two searches at the same time, there was a $23 difference in Travelocity’s prices for the Hotel Le Six in Paris.

CheapTickets. The Northeastern Price Discrimination Study found that the online bargain travel site CheapTickets offers reduced prices on hotels to consumers who are logged into an account with CheapTickets, compared to those who proceed as “guests.” We performed our own search of airfares on CheapTickets without being logged in. We searched for flights from LAX to Las Vegas for April 5 through April 8, 2019. Our searches produced identical flight results in the same order, but Mr. Rosenfield’s prices were all quoted at three dollars higher than Ms. Antonini’s.

Other travel websites. The Northeastern Price Discrimination Study found that Orbitz also offers reduced prices on hotels to consumers who were logged into an account (Orbitz has been accused of quoting higher prices to Mac users versus PC users because Mac users have a higher household income); Expedia and Hotels.com steer a subset of users toward more expensive hotels; and Priceline acknowledges it “personalizes search results based on a user’s history of clicks and purchases. (source)

There is an industry that exists to evaluate you and sell your data to companies.

The complaint also describes an industry that offers retailers evaluations of their customers’ “trustworthiness” to determine whether they are a potential risk for fraudulent returns. One such firm – called Sift – offers these evaluations to major companies like Starbucks and Airbnb. Sift boasts on its website that it can tailor “user experiences based on 16,000+ real-time signals – putting good customers in the express lane and stopping bad customers from reaching the checkout.”

The Hill contacted Sift for comment, and the company was not able to respond. But, back in April, a Sift spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that it rates customers on a scale of 0 to 100, likening it to a credit score for trustworthiness.

While credit scores can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to make big purchases (and sometimes, gain employment), they at least are transparent. Surveillance scoring is not. There is NO transparency for consumers, and Rosenfield and Antonini argue that companies are using them to engage in illegal discrimination while users have little recourse to correct false information about them or challenge their ratings.

We are being spied on and scored on a wide variety of factors.

“In the World Privacy Forum’s landmark study “The Scoring of America: How Secret Consumer Scores Threaten Your Privacy and Future,” authors Pam Dixon and Bob Gellman identified approximately 44 scores currently used to predict the actions of consumers,” the complaint explains:

These include:

The Medication Adherence Score, which predicts whether a consumer is likely to follow a medication regimen;

The Health Risk Score, which predicts how much a specific patient will cost an insurance company;

The Consumer Profitability Score, which predicts which households may be profitable for a company and hence desirable customers;

The Job Security score, which predicts a person’s future income and ability to pay for things;

The Churn Score, which predicts whether a consumer is likely to move her business to another company;

The Discretionary Spending Index, which scores how much extra cash a particular consumer might be able to spend on non-necessities;

The Invitation to Apply Score, which predicts how likely a consumer is to respond to a sales offer;

The Charitable Donor Score, which predicts how likely a household is to make significant charitable donations;

The Pregnancy Predictor Score, which predicts the likelihood of someone getting pregnant. (source)

The government isn’t doing anything to stop these practices.

Back in 2014, the Federal Trade Commission held a workshop on a practice they call “predictive scoring” but the agency has done little since to reign in the practice. Antonini said that their complaint is pushing the agency to reexamine the industry and investigate whether it violates laws against unfair and deceptive business practices, according to The Hill:

“It’s far, far worse than when they looked at it in 2014,” she said. “There’s an exponentially larger amount of data that’s being collected about the American public that’s in the hands of data brokers and companies. Their ability to process that data and write algorithms have also improved exponentially.” (source)

We seem to be past the point of expecting our data to remain private, The Introduction to the complaint begins with a passage that sums up reality for us now:

This Petition does not ask the Commission to investigate the collection of Americans’ personal information. The battle over whether Americans’ personal data can be collected is over, and, as of this moment at least, consumers have lost. Consumers are now victims of an unavoidable corporate surveillance capitalism.

Rather, this Petition highlights a disturbing evolution in how consumers’ data is deployed against them. (source)

We can’t go anywhere without being surveilled now.

It is now impossible to shop in any large chain stores without being spied on. Stores are starting to use “smart coolers”, which are refrigerators equipped with cameras that scan shoppers’ faces and make inferences on their age and gender. And, a recent article from Futurism describes how security cameras are no longer being used solely to reduce theft:

“Instead of just keeping track of who’s in a store, surveillance systems could use facial recognition to determine peoples’ identities and gathering even more information about them. That data would then be out there, with no opportunity to opt out. (source)

A new ACLU report titled “The Dawn of Robot Surveillance” describes how emerging AI technology enables security companies to constantly monitor and collect data about people.

“Growth in the use and effectiveness of artificial intelligence techniques has been so rapid that people haven’t had time to assimilate a new understanding of what is being done, and what the consequences of data collection and privacy invasions can be,” the report concludes.

What do you think?

Do you think it is too late to stop all of this surveillance? Does it concern you?  Have you noticed surveillance cameras in your community and in stores? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

About the Author

Dagny Taggart is the pseudonym of an experienced journalist who needs to maintain anonymity to keep her job in the public eye. Dagny is non-partisan and aims to expose the half-truths, misrepresentations, and blatant lies of the MSM.

Dagny Taggart

Dagny Taggart

Dagny Taggart is the pseudonym of an experienced journalist who needs to maintain anonymity to keep her job in the public eye. Dagny is non-partisan and aims to expose the half-truths, misrepresentations, and blatant lies of the MSM.

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  • Could this surveillance score system explain something weird I was seeing at my local Walmart last year? Occasionally I would see a shelf item sticker at one price in the kitchen gadgets section, but upon checkout the price that would rung up would be perhaps 20% to 30% higher. So I started looking for patterns, and found there were never any instances of the checkout price being lower than the shelf price. That eliminated the likelihood of random blunders, and instead pointed to blatant dishonesty.

    I reported this to management several times — with no apparent result, or apology. I didn’t notice the problem in any other part of the store.

    Isn’t this some kind of violation of many states’ version of Deceptive Trade Practices Act legislation?


    • Lewis, I believe you are correct. I’m not a lawyer but I recall having been told by a retail merchant that once a price was marked on an item, there are laws in place prohibiting the retailer from raising the price. They ARE allowed to charge a lower price, For example KMart’s “flashing blue light specials,” but they are NOT allowed to raise the price above what was marked. That is a major reason why retailers have stopped marking the prices on the actual items, and now we must squint at the tiny print on the shelf label (if a shelf label even exists) to find the price.

      Dust off your old digital camera and take photos with date & time stamps on them (I don’t know if cellphone cameras can do this, but most digital cameras can). Photograph the shelf label and the item in your hand, then photograph the checkout register display as the item is rung up. Not only will this settle any dissent from the cashier, it will also serve as evidence in the coming class action lawsuit against WallMart. Do this for Home Depot as well, since they’re named in this article as one of the fraud perps. Meanwhile, the criminals who have implemented this nasty practice need to do some time behind bars.

      The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution is alive and well, despite the malfeasance of the swamp rat parasites who accept taxpayer money while betraying the PUBLIC. We the People have the RIGHT to remain secure in our persons, papers and possessions. Modern interpretation ought to always include emails, calls and texts under the term “papers.” People must not meekly accept that we have no right to privacy, because we DO.

      However, so long as we meekly accept these invasions of our privacy and discrimination based on secretly collected data, we are (according to legal theory with which I vehemently disagree) “agreeing” or “consenting” to the practices, which makes them legal based on contract law. So, state your objections publicly, often and also in writing to every retailer and other spying corporation. Stating your objection destroys their legal fig-leaf of pretense that you “agree.”

  • What more can we say about Fascism? At least, you can raise a stink in a brick and mortar store. You can stop lines from moving forward by insisting on the shelf price. (write it down to be sure of it. That’s one way to raise awareness. The other way is to pay cash money for as long as it is accepted. I’ve noticed the eye-rolling whine I delay the waiting line fishing for a couple of pennies. There was even a VISA commercial along those lines. That’s when I took my cue to start using cash as much as possible. Had an order from an online company going out of business. They sent me the wrong size. Totally out of keeping with the sizes in the rest of my order — no returning because they’re going out of business. They were just offloading a size they couldn’t move. This article is highlighting just one more reason to let go of the convenience of ordering online and to shop at smaller trusted mom’n’pops as much as possible. The prices may be a little higher than national stores but it’s keeping them alive and everyone honest too. Also –shop American as much as possible!

    • I would suggest taking a picture with your cell phone. I’ve seen stores send someone back to “check the price”and they have changed the tags and said that YOU have made the mistake, not the store.

  • Please Daisy.
    No more popups on the articles. It’s annoying while reading, and even worse when I try to copy and paste the article because it stops it.
    Run the ad at the bottom.

  • I use a free download product call CC Cleaner that clears off cookies, temporary files and other online detritus from my computer before I shut it down for the day. While I don’t know for certain that it helps in all cases, I think that it helps to “anonymize” me insofar as I’m not likely to be as easily recognized when I visit a website.

  • So, is it time for us to start wearing masks, gloves and anonymous clothing when we shop in big stores? of course, many people would have to ware the same anonymous clothing to fool the computers. Maybe all black or all white clothing?

  • I’m not surprised, things are getting so invasive even to those who try to keep their privacy. Really upsetting nonetheless!

  • @notso, try out Brave Browser, it tames the ads and the tracking, not just here but everywhere online.

    • I just switched to Brave a few days a go and it’s amazing how much nicer my internet is working now. Duck Duck Go for my search engine gives me better search results.

  • A store that I used to work in had “surveillance cameras” over the registers. What wasn’t common knowledge was that they were equipped with microphones. The management used to turn up the volume to listen in on transactions “to monitor customer service”, and “prevent issues from escalating”. They also used to listen in on conversations between employees and used that information to leverage “disciplinary” situations. I found out after I went into the office with some paperwork and heard the speaker on. It was creepy and I told my co-workers. I didn’t get fired, because if I had been I’d have gone public and I think they knew it, aaannd I’m pretty sure that it’s a violation of wiretapping laws, but they made my life miserable. I’m glad I’m not there anymore!

  • CCleaner won’t provide the anonymity that users might hope for. I use an older version of it for data cleanup just before daily shutdowns (because the latest version mangles some software that I need to use on a daily basis). Two better solutions are:

    1. Copy any article links you want to visit that have arrived to you via email — copy them into something like Notepad or AbiWord, etc. Especially then shut down such privacy destroyers as Google’s Gmail or any of the social media websites. For example, Edward Snowden even described Facebook as a mass surveillance system, rebranded as “social media.” Gmail has not only begun snooping on what websites you visit, but has even starting blocking you from seeing the left half of any articles linked in Daisy Luther’s emails to you — including article link-containing emails from her you might have saved going back many years.

    2. Then open your browser’s Incognito Mode (if it has one), and paste into new windows there any links you want to visit. That’s one way to be able to read Daisy’s articles again without Gmail squelching them. But there are stories that not all browser Incognito Modes are equally effective. So ….

    3. An even better way, after shutting down the aforementioned bad guys above, is to use a DIFFERENT BROWSER for everything other than accessing your email accounts.

    I think we’ve not been using the most effective label for government or big business obsessions with surveillance. I think it should be called the surveillance pandemic.


  • Thanks for the information that some stores charge more for a Mac user than for a Windows™ user. I’m far from wealthy, but I use a Mac because I’m a writer and Mac has the best tools for a writer. Linux implements some of them. Windows™ none of them. Are Linux computers treated the same as Windows™?

    One way to anonymize one’s browsing is always to use “privacy” mode in your browser. That way, all cookies and history are deleted automatically upon closing the browser. Further, modern browsers include tools to erase cookies and history. Just don’t use Google Chrome, it spies even from within “privacy” mode.

    I pay cash whenever possible.

    While cameras in phones don’t put the date and time of the front of pictures, they still have metadata that says when they were taken. If you have problems, take pictures of all purchases as you take them off the shelves. Make sure the price tags are visible in the pictures. Almost all phone cameras today are sharper than the old 35mm cameras. Then if there are no problems, the pictures are easy to erase.

    I not only use different browsers for different tasks online, I even use different computers. I have a professional email account on gmail, I access it almost always from an old, cheap netbook computer. A family email account at a different server, again accessed only through a newer, cheap (< $200) computer running Linux. And so forth.

    Maybe what I’m doing is too little too late, closing the gate after the horse has already bolted, but it’s worth a try.

  • As to stores deciding who they will sell to, some of the big banks are doing the same thing. It seems that if they don’t like your politics, they will close your account. There are several stories online. I’m waiting for a large lawsuit over this.
    Banks are federally regulated, not that big.gov gives a *hoot*.

  • yes it seems familiar… I have a PC points account and they track purchases for points scores and tailor offers to your habits. I find certain shopping habits like higher profit items like chips and precut veggies are rewarded with higher bonus points.

    Great rewards but definitely tracking 🙁

  • In the hands of totalitarian and genocidal governments, the new ID technologies could be quite lethal — “die Gedanken sind frei” replaced by “Information macht frei.” In fact, during the violent 20th century, state power directed by governments against their own citizens was responsible for more democide than war. What is to prevent the new ID technologies from being bent to the same malevolent purposes, again raising the question once asked by Juvenal: “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes” (Who will guard us from the guardians)?

    Standing in stark relief to the optimistic views of the future of globalization now prevalent, this dark vision of a digital gulag posits that, far from witnessing the eclipse of the Westphalian nation-state system by the rising, pluralistic influence of non-state actors, we instead may be on the threshold of an information counterrevolution that will lead to unprecedented concentrations of state power and their possible transformation into one or more supranational entities.

  • I hate when you go to buy an airline ticket and it says “3 tickets left at this price” and when you go immediately back to buy a second ticket, that price is suddenly gone. I just don’t believe 2 other people suddenly bought… could be, but I suspect they’re tracking the access to that flight and if they see multiple hits, they raise the price.

    Glenn Beck was talking the other day about how Amazon’s future business model is changing to predicting our product needs and wants so well (based on “data analytics”) that they just SEND us items and we return what we don’t want, rather than initiating the orders ourselves.

    Data analytics have been part of capitalism from the beginning. I remember working at a non-profit 20 years ago and we paid to have lists of names to solicit that were better targets so that we didn’t waste our money on asking people that were less likely to give us a donation.

    Knowing who is more likely to support your cause, or buy your product is probably a good thing to have.
    Makes non-profits more efficient and companies more profitable. But when they use the information to charge people MORE or DENY them access, that’s not right.

    “Transparency” is the one area where I truly WANT Federal Government regulation.

  • I wonder how this might relate to horrific customer service like I am receiving from Sprint, now T-Mobile. I spent HOURS to cancel my service and HUNDREDS of dollars–and they kept charging me anyway for service I was not able to use after I moved.

    They cancelled for non-payment, but are now sending me warnings about turning the account over for Collection. I spent more hours on the phone, only to reach a peon in some other nation who wasted lots of my time and was apparently not able to fix the problem. I am considering filing a lawsuit charging them $1000 an hour for my time they waste. The legal department might be able to straighten it out.

    How would THEIR utter dishonor affect MY credit scores?

  • I was at a Stop and Shop grocery store in Falmouth, MA. recently, not too far from my home community. It had a “robot” thing that I swear was following me around the store. I first saw it in the produce section, then in meat, then in the aisles. I saw a former coworker and stopped to chat and the robot hovered.
    It creeped me out and I don’t want to shop at that store again.
    About the only good thing about it was that masks are required in MA., so it didn’t get a good look at my face.

  • I believe Walmart.com is using these social credit scores to stop people from being able to order online. There are many who place an order only to get an email a few minutes later stating “Your order was cancelled due to “LOCATION RESTRICTIONS.”

    No matter how many times you call Wal Mart Corporate and customer resolution there is never any resolution. This is intentional.

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