The latest proposal for ‘food stamps’ has aroused a good deal of anger. It’s a policy that is divisive, depressing and hideous in many ways – Suzanne Moore’s article in the Guardian is one of the many excellent pieces written about it. She hits at the heart of the problem: ‘Repeat after me: austerity removes autonomy’.
That’s particularly true in this case, and in more ways than even Suzanne Moore brings in. This new programme has even more possibilities to remove autonomy than previous attempts at controlling what ‘the poor’ can do with their money – because it takes food stamps into the digital age…
The idea, as I understand it, is that people will be issued with food ‘cards’, rather than old fashioned food stamps. The precise details of these cards have yet to emerge, and quite how ‘smart’ they will be has yet to be seen, but the direction is clear. The cards will only work in certain shops, and only allow the purchase of certain goods. At the moment they’re talking about stopping ‘the poor’ from buying such evil goods as tobacco and alcohol, but as Suzanne Moore points out, equivalent schemes in the US have blocked the purchase of fizzy drinks. In a digital world, the control over what can or cannot be purchased can be exact and ever-changing. It allows complete control – we can determine an ‘acceptable’ list of things that people can and cannot buy.
All well and good, so people might think. Let’s make sure people only eat fresh fruit and vegetables – improve the nation’s health, instil better eating habits, force people to learn to cook. All for the better! There are, however, one or two flaws in this plan.
Firstly, it seems almost certain that the plan will be effectively subcontracted out to private companies – and limited to specific shops. In Birmingham it has already been said that these cards will only work in ASDA. Doubtless there will be tendering process, and the different supermarkets will be vying for the opportunity to stake their claims. Once they do, which products will they be directing people to buy? The most nutritious ones? The cheapest ones? The most practical ones? Or the ones that will make them the most money?
Secondly, these cards present a built-in opportunity for profiling. Just as existing supermarket loyalty cards are used primarily to profile the people who use them, monitoring shopping habits in order (amongst other things) to find ways to convince people to spend more money, these kind of food cards can be used to profile the people who use them. This may not be any different from existing supermarket loyalty cards – but at least people have a choice as to which supermarket they use, and whether they want to be profiled. This kind of a system is effectively selling the profiles of people directly to the supermarkets, without any choice at all. Now of course privacy isn’t as important as food – but is it really right that we say that poor people aren’t allowed privacy?
Thirdly, a database will be built up of those who have the cards – and it will be a database that is crying out to be used. If those selling ‘pay-day loans’ with interest rates in the thousands get access to those databases they’ve got a beautiful set of potential targets to exploit – almost certainly complete with addresses included, just in case the people need a little ‘visit’ to chivvy them along in terms of payment.
There are further implications of this kind of thing – logical extensions to the idea. Once the system is introduced, it’s almost bound to be abused. If you have a ‘food card’ but need cash – for example to pay off a loan – then if someone else says ‘I’ll buy your card for cash, but at a 40% discount’, many, many people may accept that offer. The chances of a black market growing are huge, and the implications even worse. It would make the poor poorer (by whatever discount they’re forced to accept for their cards) for starters, but there’s more. If the authorities see this kind of abuse to the system happening, they’ll try to do something about it – for example, by requiring biometrics for verification. Fingerprints are even a possibility…
…which may seem far fetched, but school canteens around the country are already using fingerprint verification to allow children access to school meals. The technology is there – and those who make it and sell it will be lobbying the government to let them have contracts to do this.
That, again, makes the situation worse – making the databases even more invasive, even more open to abuse, and so the cycle begins again.
Of course this is only a side issue compared to the main issues of divisiveness, demonisation and sheer vindictive dehumanisation that are the inevitable consequences of this kind of scheme. I’m sure, however, that these possibilities won’t have escaped the eagle eyes of those working with these kinds of schemes. It may sound like a conspiracy theory – and indeed, to an extent it is – but it isn’t nearly as far fetched as might be imagined. As well as removing autonomy, austerity provides opportunities for those unscrupulous enough to use them – and sadly, as the last few years have made far too clear, there are plenty of people and companies like that.
14 thoughts on “Food stamps and the database state…”
At least the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 requires parents to give consent to fingerprinting and (excellently!) allows children to refuse consent, notwithstanding parental consent. There’d be no such checks or balances with Food Cards, I suspect.
I’m still unsure how that works out in practice – and aren’t there schools which ONLY allow access by fingerprint? I’m a little out of touch with the most recent developments…
….but I’m sure you’re right about the food cards. There won’t be choice of any kind, or any checks and balances.
Actually, Chapter 2 of POFA (which deals with this) hasn’t come into force yet. But yes, there are certainly schools at the moment who do only allow access in this way. I’ve been advising schools I deal with to prepare for this. Whether they have is another matter…
divisiveness, demonisation and sheer vindictive dehumanisation”.
I seem to recall the reintroduction of Shame into public life was a well thought out plan trumpeted widely before the election.
Paul – An excellent point, well-made. The prospect of this level of fine-grained administrative control over the life of the individual was the main reason I fought the Home Office’s compulsory ID card scheme. Here’s part of a talk I gave in 2008 highlighting this precise issue:
The Home Office’s web site gives a couple of examples of how data would get into this data trail. In one, Colin, when collecting a parcel from a courier service, puts his card in a reader and enters the corresponding PIN. “Within seconds there is a positive response. This confirms that the ID card is genuine and is not registered as lost or stolen.” It is left unsaid that Colin’s Register entry now has a lifelong record of the event. In another example, Wendy wants to transfer money between two of her own bank accounts. At the branch she hands over the card and “places her finger on a biometric reader on the counter” which “sends the result for checking directly to the National Identity Register (NIR).”
Notice what has happened here. The Home Office has inserted its computer into the transaction between the Wendy and Colin and the commercial service providers they use. It would be perfectly feasible for the Register to decline Wendy’s request for reasons other than her identity not being validated. For instance, there is already legislation that allows the Asset Recovery Agency to freeze the assets of those suspected (but not convicted) of crimes such as drug smuggling. If Wendy were subject to such as order, it would seem reasonable for the Register to decline her request to transfer her own funds at the bank. However, we should ask ourselves where such administrative justice should end. What about fathers accused of defaulting on their Child Support Agency maintenance payments? Or those with unpaid parking fines? When a payment terminal declines your credit card, you can always try another one, or pay with cash, but if ID cards become part of everyday life (as ministers desire), and your ID card stops working, your life would stop too. An ID card could easily become your government-issued Licence to Live.
Cheers – Andrew
Thanks – in the end, it’s all too often about a desire to control by the government and a desire to make money by the relevant businesses. People are just treated as cattle by both…
Reading this guardian article http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/29/asda-welfare-scheme-birmingham?INTCMP=SRCH it reads as if the partnership is already there and that Asda have been directly approached by Birmingham. This all sounds very much like an illegal direct award to me. I checked OJEU and couldn’t even find a PIN, let alone a contract notice. Surely they can’t announce who they’ll be working with before going out to tender? The value of the scheme has got to be over the threshold.
It sounds like these are basically the gift cards you can get from these stores. I would imagine some of them already don;t work for booze and fags so as to offer an advantage over cash to parents and grandparents giving money as a present.
If the cards remain emergency support only, there isn’t much risk of profiling, as the cards will be issued occasionally as if they were cash. The council would know who they were issued to but not the shop.
I doubt the database, if one over came in to existence, would be sold. The DPA as it currently stands would allow opt outs (not that many of the people who need emergency food money will stp to read the form, and in many cases will not be that familiar with the DPA, or indeed literate) but the main obstacle would be the Guardian going absolutely, stratospherically ape.
In any case, Wonga et al don’t pay ‘little visits’. They have consumer credit licences to lose. You’re getting confused because until recently loan sharks were illegal. Easy mistake to make.
All valid comments – but wait and see. Experience suggests that function creep happens with almost all these kinds of systems. With tendering the pressure will be on…
I run a little foodbank and round here we just give out to anyone who needs it. The job centre is one of the places sends people to us. But now they have been told not to as thecouncil will run some government foodstamp scheme and will decidewho needs it. The council are notyet setup forthis when we rung them. It is just punishingpeople whoare struggling. I wish peoplecould meetthe ordinaryfamilies Imeet who are really up against it – whose little kids have had an Easter egg from a foodbank.
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or listen to my 90-minute interview on “Coast to Coast” one week ago: