My mother was the original online shopper – long before the internet was “invented”! Every Friday morning, she phoned our local grocery store and spoke to Marian or Fiona in the office and gave them her shopping list for the week.
Someone in the shop would follow her (strict) instructions – no bruised apples! – and the delivery van would arrive with the shopping a few hours later.
Once a month Mum would go into the shop and settle her bill and everyone was happy.
In a lot of ways, her experience was way better than the experience of today’s online shopper. The staff in the shop knew her by name and they knew her buying preferences – they knew when it was okay to substitute a different product and they knew when Monica would not like that. But they did know a lot about her and about us because of her shopping habits.
I often think about my Mum’s shopping experience when I talk to people who don’t get data protection.
Do you think my Mum would have continued to do business with that grocery store if the owner James was prone to discussing my Mum’s buying habits with other shoppers? Do you think she would have shopped there if the shop staff were in the pub on Friday after work commenting about her buying habits? “Monica must be having a party, she bought enough ingredients to make 12 of her famous apple tarts this week” or “Monica’s kitchen was a real mess when we delivered the groceries today, it's not like her, I wonder if someone is unwell”.
James would never have tolerated this from his staff because he knew his business reputation depended on their discretion.
When you are wondering what data protection is about, think about that grocery shop transferred online and at scale. It’s on a different scale because the volume of data shared online, the volume of customers the shop can trade with and because the online traders can combine those large volumes of data in software to analyse buying habits. When data is collected and analysed at scale and without direct contact with a real customer it can be difficult to relate the "shopping basket" to a real person. But there is a real person behind every online purchase and the online shop has the same responsibility to that shopper as James and his staff had to my mother back in the pre-internet ages.
The fundamentals haven’t changed – they have simply scaled up.
Today James runs a successful e-grocery and takes customer orders online and knows an awful lot about their buying habits both as individuals and collectively. His business reputation still depends on treating his customer’s personal data with discretion.