How to: Shop Untraceably, Offline

Toy shark, sixteen dollars in cash, two pairs of kids goggles and a receipt.
These kids' goggles were untraceably purchased with cash and face mask, enabling an eventual trip to the pool.

You are traveling and purposefully booked a place with a pool for your kids to splash around. Then you realize, you left their goggles at home! What do you do?

Any normal parent would look up kids goods at a local sports store on their phone, maybe purchase in advance for pickup, map their drive there, swing by toss a credit card or Apple Pay or something at a machine on the way out, and make it back in time for class.  But I don't want any corporate databases to know I have children. So when this happened to me, what followed was an exercise in patience---extra time to look up stores and merchandise using untraceable searches, and to pull over at an ATM to grab cash--then acceptance.

They went without goggles.

You probably don't think much about how you shop, just where you shop and what you buy. That's what marketers want you to focus on, after all. In the meanwhile, they're focusing on learning everything about you.

And when it comes to shopping, there is a lot they can learn.

Shopping is a goldmine of personal information. You drop data behind you like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs throughout every store. Your phone is snooped upon. Your credit card is an open book. Your store loyalty card is a treasure trove. Cameras capure your every move. If you are going to make untraceable purchases, you'll have to circumvent the evolving schemes that are hell-bent on knowing who you are and what you're buying, in the name of making you buy more of it.

Don't be fooled by the brick-and-mortars. Just because you're not accessing the store through a browser doesn't mean they aren't tracking you! In some ways, it's easier to evade online if you have the right blockers and browser tools. Plus online establishments often tell you you're being tracked, by asking you if you agree to their cookies. Just like online stores don't always give you the option to disagree, the only option you have to avoid surveillance capitalism in an actual store is often, not to go in.

Still, sometimes going into a store can't be avoided, or it's preferable to buying online and giving away things like your mailing address. Cash is the original untraceable technology after all.

My rules of thumb cannot help you avoid tracking entirely. They are developed to help you fool the systems. They might get your body on camera, but they won't be able to link your face to a record. They'll know someone bought certain goods, but because they don't know who that person is they can't attach it to a record that includes your real name. It's evasive action, not total system avoidance.

This is what I do whenever I need to buy something at a store that's in any way related to having children.

Don't take it on Credit

Let's start with the basics: credit cards. Credit card numbers are unique. They are a terrific way to track someone across numerous purchases. A paper published in the journal Science in 2019 studied three months of credit card records. They found they could identify nine out of ten consumers with just four purchases: it was easier if they knew prices, and if the shopper was a woman. 

I never swipe a card at a store if I want my purchase to be untraceable.

Also, a credit card is associated with an address and a zip code. That info can give you away. And zip codes in the United States say a lot about socioeconomic status--if your choice of store didn't already, that is. So your data is valuable to marketing companies, as they'll use it to offer you a related product they think you'd be interested in. Lest you think this is just "convenient" for you to find new products, consider that you now have no control over where your personal information has circulated.

Credit card companies collect records of your purchases as well. That's why Visa, Mastercard, and Amex have yet to see a single child-related purchase from me.  Not even birthday presents.  (I told you this gets expensive.)

If you use Apple Pay, Google Wallet, or some dedicated app for a company like Starbucks or McDonalds, that's a whole other level of giving the game away. Now you've linked your card to a phone, with a unique identifier and a record of your location and your friends' contact information, to say the least. I generally avoid anything involving entering credit card information into a device and using that to "ping" at the till and pay: it's converging too many data streams to be safe. If you so much as think of using Google Pay or PayPal or anything like it to buy baby wipes you're instantly sentenced to twenty years of nothing but diaper ads on the Internet.

My solution: cash, whenever and however possible.

If it's not possible to pay in cash, I don't purchase. If I don't have enough cash with me to buy a pack of baby wipes or kids' toothpaste, and there isn't an ATM in walking/driving distance, then my saving grace is debit card payments. At some registers you can pay with a debit card and then take up to $60 of cash out. So I do two purchases: a pack of gum or something random with the debit card, something I don't mind being tracked or traced to me. I pull out cash, then I start a new transaction to pay for the wipes.

I once took about 20 minutes at a Target checkout trying to get enough cash from the till to buy Christmas gifts for my kids and nephews. Then there was the time I held a bunch of kids' books at the counter at Barnes and Noble and drove around for 15 minutes until I found an ATM open on a Sunday evening in NJ. Getting cash out before a kid-related purchase is basically second nature to me now.

Again, not exactly convenient. But not tracking, either.

Even when I take the kids to the aquarium or a movie or something, I pay with cash. If I can't pay cash then I buy full price, adult tickets. A child discount would be a giveaway, either because the purchase would be attached to my credit card account; or I'd be giving the venue my name and the fact that I buy things for children.

Another possibility: gift cards and one-time-use cards. You just have to pay for them in cash. You can pick these up at pharmacies or bookstores in the United States. Just make sure that if you go so far as to register the card online that you follow my (forthcoming) tips on how to shop untraceably online.

When it comes to opting out, cash is your friend. 

Disloyal or Discounts?

Your data is so precious that stores will stop at nothing to get it from you. Including offering you free things, discounts, sweepstakes, and all kinds of "perks." Just become one of the "club," collect "points," be a "VIP," grab a card for CVS, Shoprite, Wegmans, and watch the cents come off at the till! Those perks sure seem great, but they are gateways to tracing your purchases at an ever more fine-grained level.

In 2012, the New York Times Review story broke about a teenager whose local Target found out she was pregnant before her dad did. The giveaway was her purchase history, recorded with store loyalty card swipes. Even unscented body lotion will give you away.

Don't get me started on Amazon's Whole Foods experience. I know, it feels so futuristic! You link your Amazon account and your groceries are just automatically tabulated at the till! So timesaving! So convenient! Much wow!  

Doge meme with Jeff Bezos joke.
Doge's opinion of your Amazon-Whole-Foods-checkout future.

But did you really, really, just tell Jeff Bezos all your favorite foods and what you're eating this week? To combine with that one time you looked for a new television, and the thirteen trashy novels you downloaded on your Kindle, and, and, and ....? No one, not even your mother, knows that much about you, so why should Jeff?

No loyalty cards. Not even one. Remind yourself, that the discounts aren't real discounts anyway!  It's just a small payback for the enormous amount of money they will make from telling their advertising partners that they can target you.  A pittance. Not even enough to make giving that data away worthwhile.

Getting There

For the sake of argument, I will assume you have an Apple or Android smartphone, like an estimated 90% of US adults.  You're likely logged into your Google or Apple account in order to use the phone in the first place. You probably use the built in Google Maps or Apple Maps to search for the baby store you need to visit, and navigate there. 

Big mistake. Now Google or Apple knows you are looking for a baby store, as well as who you are and where you are. You are "outed." Cue the relevant ads everywhere, and the rapid-fire use of your data without your consent.

I don't have this problem because I use a fully functional alternative smartphone and I'm off Google products. I've been off these products for so long that I missed the whole development where they listen to you talking or take your searches and map locations to serve you creepy ads. But here is what I recommend to get around this leak.

I suggest you do NOT use a smartphone, because these companies can technically snoop on what you are doing on their device, regardless of the app you use. Desktop browsers can offer more strategies for protection, if you have a lot of privacy tools installed and are not logged into Facebook, Google, or another advertising service. Using DuckDuckGo you can do a Google maps search by including "!m" in your search query: that will load the Google map but through a proxy, not connected to an account. Be sure to clear your browser cache (on DDG this is clicking the flame icon and the whole thing goes up in proverbial, digital flames). Print out your directions, and go.

Alternatively, you can try disabling your location services on the phone and downloading one or two alternative mapping apps. Organic Maps or Open Street Map are decent options. You can load a map through a browser on your phone like I mention above, but don't use the built in browsers like Safari or Chrome because those are gateways to Apple and Google: use Firefox or DuckDuckGo instead.

Or just use a regular actual, paper map and the Yellow Pages at a local library.

Just don't use your phone to get there, unless you're totally sure you can do it without tracking.

Deep Game

I once went to Pea in the Pod Maternity Wear to pick up, well, anything that would fit my swelling middle. I draped a scarf around my neck and up over my hair, sort of like a loose hijab, and I kept my big, thick sunglasses on, even in the dressing room. I turned my phone off so it wouldn't be detected by any in-store devices, beelined for the sale rack at the back and kept my head down. I gave a fake name to the friendly clerk who complemented my bump as she offered to help select pieces to try on. I turned down the chance to get 10% off at the till by giving them my name and phone number for my purchase. Instead, I counted out a few twenties at the till and left with my overpriced, wide-waisted jeans. I'll bet they'd never seen a customer like me before.

In-store shopping has turned into a veritable data scientist's paradise. There are cameras tracking you all over the store. There are surrupticiously placed sensors that pick up pings from your mobile phone while you're inside. There are the cameras at the tills that feed facial recognition systems. That day in Pea in the Pod was before such systems were as advanced as they are now, so I didn't paint asymmetric shapes over my face to obscure my face. But the systems have gotten stronger, the tracking more fine grained. It's a minefield out there.

Still, you have some options.

Ask yourself, how anonymous do you really need to be with this purchase? Not every excursion has to be a game of spy-versus-spy. If you don't care if someone knows you're in a Wall-Mart, judge your behavior accordingly. Just know, you're being tracked. And you are welcome to scream about the infringement upon your civil rights with these incessant privacy incursions. 

If the answer, like me, is that you're buying something for children that you don't want The Data Economy to know you have, then pull a scarf or the neck of your shirt up over your nose, turn your phone off when you walk into the store (or get an alternative phone, more on that later). Always carry sunglasses and slip them over your eyes. 

I was so relieved when the Covid19 mask policy was in place, not just because of the protection from the virus. It turns out facial recognition systems don't work well with masks over your nose and mouth. Hip or lame, cases up or down: mask up, especially at the til.

Uninvited Friends

Stores come in cliques these days. You have to know which stores own which other stores, and who's owned by what parent company. Otherwise you won't know why your purchase at Williams Sonoma just earned you an unsolicited catalog from Pottery Barn Kids.

Like how all Americans seem to know that a Ford is the same as a Lincoln or a Mercury, you need to get good at recognizing when baby brands are related, even when they seem distinct from their parent companies.

Ask yourself: who owns Pea in the Pod? (Answer: the same people who own Sur La Table, Dakine, Martha Stewart, and BCBG). Gap Maternity? (Answer: The Fischer family, they also own Athleta and Old Navy) 

Bonus: who owns National Geographic magazine? (Answer: Disney! Including Nat Geo Kids)

Obviously, if you're trying to protect a private pregnancy, then don't shop at stores that are related to childrens' goods, like Buy Buy Baby (owned by Bed Bath and Beyond) or Pottery Barn Kids (see above). Best to go into a more general store, like a Walgreens or a Gap that has a kids' section, or a general pharmacy, and to keep your purchases in cash.

Shopping local has multiple benefits. Small local mom and pop shops are less likely to send your information up a chain to a larger parent company, and to own extensive store tracking infrastructure. Sure, they'll have CCD cameras, but not the full-blown body-recognition systems that Wallmart uses. 

But don't put all your data eggs in that basket. Because if that store gets bought, or goes bankrupt, or sells off their customer database, your info will transfer to someone else along with their assets. There are a couple of small children's toy and clothing stores I go to that I love, and I especially love that they don't blink an eye when I tell them to hold something at the counter while I run to a cash machine nearby. Cash is still best. 

What to Protect

With data collection it's always a question of convergence: that is, not just all the stuff they have, but what can they reasonably combine? They need a point of overlap to combine the data.

Unique numbers like credit cards or phone numbers are a prime way to combine datasets, because you can link unique records together around a single person. They're like strips of data flypaper, catching all your purchases and activities and sticking them to you for everyone can see.

Limit the unique information that a store has about you. Make sure that when you do use something traceable, like a credit card at a til, it's for a purchase you don't care about. But ask yourself: Is this a purchase I care about? If so, better make it untraceable.

Remember that if you're walking around in a store with a cell phone pinging at the local towers, and your phone number is attached to your store loyalty card, and your credit card, and you swipe them both at the till, you should expect that that store can trace your every step through that store and associate you with an image, a history of past purchases, and all this just so they can show you what they think you might like to buy next.

But if your purchase is cash, with no tracing, your face is masked and eyes hidden behind sunglasses, and your phone is off, then they know someone bought some stuff, and they know what stuff was bought, but not that it was precisely you.

Sold! To an Anonymous Buyer...

In the absence of full-scale legislation rendering all of this illegal, or a revolution  in which we pick up our hammers and smash every surveillance device in the store, Luddite-style, I hope that this solution is one most of us can implement-- either as the shopper or as an ally to a shopper (see my forthcoming post about inequalities). I've kept this up for nine years and counting. And if more of us take this track, we may stand a chance of pushing back this devastating surveillant tide.

Certainly, there are closed-circuit systems that keep us safe. But running facial recognition and body detection and full court purchase histories on customers just so you can sell them things, is not the future we were promised, nor is it one that we deserve.

I hope you smile as you exit the store, untraceable under your mask-and-sunglasses with your phone turned off, hopeful in the knowledge that you--yes, you!--have just thrown a small monkey wrench into the gears of the personal data economy.

Keep it up.

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