The Hamilton Spectator
Thursday, April 3, 1997
page C11,C12

Privacy up for sale in a buyer's market

'Electronic trail' left behind as credit purchases sell out user

by Mark McNeil, mmcneil@southam.ca

[electronic cash] I don't know if the so-called digitized economy or cashless society has arrived. But have you noticed it's becoming almost unnecessary to carry cash?

If you want to buy something expensive, like a television, you can use a credit card. A more modest purchase, like groceries, can be handled by a debit card.

And in some places -- such as Guelph, where a smart card experiment is taking place -- you can use a Mondex electronic cash card to buy incidental items such as a package of gum or a bus ride.

But what happens to all those electronic records of everything you buy? Who gets to see them? When does this become an encroachment of privacy?

[Dr. David Jones, with e-cash]
'I'm not sure if people are aware that the system is completely auditable.' - McMaster's David Jones
David Jones, a McMaster University computer science professor, says we have a lot to be concerned about.

Banks, big business, and governments would love to use new technology to learn more about our spending habits.

Guelph is the Canadian pilot site of the Mondex electronic cash system. Residents are able to use the card that is embedded with a tiny microcomputer chip at most stores as well as parking lots, vending machines, and city buses.

Cash is loaded onto the card at bank machines and specially equipped phones.

It sounds appealing, but as Jones notes, the "Mondex card is being pitched as an alternative to cash. But cash is anonymous."

"I'm not sure if people are aware that the system is completely auditable. It's not like paper money at all. It leaves an electronic trail."

"I think there is a significant opportunity for mischief if governments and big businesses have access to moment-by-moment records of what we do with our lives. They will be able to ask questions they could never have asked before."

[EFC, Mondex] Jones is president of Electronic Frontier Canada, an organization that is trying to protect human rights and freedoms as new computing, communications, and information technologies are introduced. Its web page can be found at http://www.efc.ca.

Canada's privacy commissioner, Bruce Phillips, has raised the issue publicly. He points out there are no federal or Ontario provincial laws to regulate the gathering or trade of consumer information. Banks themselves set their own rules.

Sally Jackson, director of public affairs for the commissioner says, "Who's to say the information couldn't be sold or used in some other way? We think people should be concerned about this."

"Governments, businesses, and individuals have to ask just because these things are possible, should they be doing them? Should everything we purchase be monitored? Increasingly, we are living in a society that monitors us all the time."

A spokesperson for Mondex International -- owned by a global consortium including the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Royal Bank -- could not be reached for comment.

However, the company's web site at http://www.mondex.com acknowledges that purchases can be tracked. It is a feature that helps prevent fraudulent use of the cards.

But Joe Barbera, of the Bank of Montreal, said monitoring does not have to be a feature of smart cards.

The Bank of Montreal and Toronto Dominion Bank and Canada Trust are partners in a electronic money experiment in Kingston using a Belgian system called EXACT. Unlike Mondex, EXACT does not keep track of purchases.

It's all an evolving technology, and it's not clear what form smart cards will take when they are more broadly introduced.

Valuable

But Jones says information about our spending habits can be very valuable to private companies and governments. And there will be great incentives to gather as much data as possible.

"They could find out about our buying patterns, what time of day we buy things."

"They can tell whether you keep money in your pocket for a short time or a long time."

He fears governments will see an opportunity to try to eliminate the underground economy or so-called grey market.

"If there is a bad government policy, there is no escape valve", he said. "A government could use the technology to try to eliminate resistance to the goods and services tax or high taxes on cigarettes."

"People who don't like government regulations and taxation, ... they're able to conduct some business outside scrutiny and regulation by paying cash. That could be taken away."

Another issue is welfare recipients having their spending habits closely scrutinized.

A smart card might only allow them to buy certain things, which may be bad or good, depending on your philosophical view.

He also suggests government bureaucrats might find out that a Toronto welfare recipient spends most of his time in Hamilton.

So then it might be argued the person should be on Hamilton's welfare roll.

Orwellian

Of course it is all reminiscent of George Orwell's novel 1984. But as privacy commissioners, and others, have noted:

There isn't one Big Brother, there are a lot of little brothers talking to each other.


Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.