So I was in Kroger (the grocery store) the other day and the cashier asked if I had a discount card. I don’t, and I told her so. Most of the time, people accept this, but every once in a while, I run across a cashier who takes the initiative to let me know how much money I could be “saving”. On this particular occasion, I apparently would’ve paid less on every item. The elderly woman who checked out ahead of me even joined in, and voluntarily offered me hers, which I reluctantly accepted.

Well, I don’t have any of those discount cards, and I do know how much less I would pay for my groceries if I did. I used to have them, and I cut them up. And you know what? You should too. They’re not discount cards. They’re a form of blackmail that supermarkets use to pressure us to give them our personal information. There’s little evidence to suggest that they provide any kind of discount at all. “Regular” prices for items almost universally rise after card programs are instituted, and the “discount” prices with the cards often aren’t discounts at all.

Kroger’s program is supposed to be a program to reward customer loyalty, as they say, but here’s the funny thing: I’m a very loyal Kroger customer. I probably shop there 8 or 9 times out of 10, and I would gladly tell them (1) how often I came in and (2) how much money I spent each time, if it would help them figure out whether I’m a “loyal customer” or not. Heck, they probably could figure that out from my debit card receipts. But, no! That doesn’t matter! I’m forced to pay more because I’m unwilling to give them my address and an exact list of items I buy each time.

At first, when cashiers would ask me why I didn’t have a card, I would want to argue about it and make a point about how evil they were. I was truly shocked by the response I got, how often I apparently struck nerves. I could practically see people wondering if I had something to hide. I quickly learned to drop the subject when it came up, to pretend that I had just lost my card.

Well, I don’t have something to hide, but that’s not the point. The crux of the “do you have something to hide” argument is that the party you’re “hiding” from is an honorable one with honorable motives. If you want to hide from them, clearly you’re up to something Very Bad[TM]. And many people apparently have that kind of faith in their supermarkets, their pharmacies, their governments… and this is where I part ways with them. What about Tyco, MCI, Value America, Enron?

Distressingly, privacy is like virginity. You can’t get it back once you lose it. We are being forced to give it up bit by bit, by economic and legal pressure, privacy agreements and bonus cards and RFID tags, each step eroding our privacy rights. It’s slow, sometimes even unperceptable, but if we don’t fight each step, sooner or later those rights will be gone.