Coffee's Tech Dystopia

Coffee's Tech Dystopia

This is a story about coffee, but only partly. It’s a story about data, and the way technology has become embedded in the industry. It’s also a story about the ways we interact with the coffee shops we frequent, and how those interactions have changed in an ever-more-digitised world. 

Take loyalty cards: Where once they were paper cards with punched holes, now they’ve transformed into apps that do more than just record purchases. Today, in exchange for our personal data, we get a free small coffee every so often.

In this and other instances, we’ve given away a part of ourselves, knowingly but unthinkingly, for very little in return. Sometimes those loyalty apps get hacked, and sometimes they track us without our consent. Sometimes we’re the product: Cafes marketed to students offer free coffee and Wi-Fi, but their data is harvested and offered to multinational recruiters. Sometimes it’s just straightforwardly dystopian: Startups pitch algorithmic tracking software to monitor customers’ habits and police workers’ productivity.

This is the state of the modern coffee industry, in which big companies invest in the latest tech trends with the professed goal of helping the farmer or helping the worker; you might come across companies’ claims of “embracing connectivity to increase efficiency” or “using the blockchain to enhance traceability”. Such “help” also gives customers access to freebies, but only while data-farming them and providing such lax security that they’re at risk of being hacked repeatedly.

It’s not just coffee, of course—every interaction with modern technology comes with these tradeoffs and risks. Technology isn’t fundamentally negative—without it, we wouldn’t have espresso machines, mechanical dryers, or the Frappuccino. But when wielded by bad actors and disguised as a convenience or social good, it risks further degrading the way the coffee industry functions, and turning it into yet another place where the contents of our personal lives are up for sale.

Free Coffee for Your Data

In 2018, the Japanese company Shiru Cafe opened its first U.S. location just adjacent to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. While it looked like any other off-campus coffee shop, Shiru was different: no college ID, no service. Baristas were told to turn away non-college-affiliated visitors; while faculty could pay for their drinks, students received them for free.

The tradeoff: Students were asked to supply personal details like names, email addresses, and college majors, as well as their birthdays and personal interests. Additionally, “Companies pay Shiru to advertise internships and other positions on promotional cups, customers’ smartphones and projected screens in the café”, according to an article in the Brown Daily Herald. The cafe also hosted recruitment sessions, while Shiru’s website notes that staff were trained to “give students additional information about our sponsors while they enjoy coffee”.

Shiru has cafes across Japan and India, conveniently located close to universities in both countries. There, the company has been successful—the Brown Daily Herald reports that 40% of JP Morgan Japan’s hires in 2017 were Shiru Cafe customers—but it didn’t do so well in the U.S. While the company claimed it had plans to open locations near Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other elite colleges, most of those never materialised, and the Brown location closed after less than two years.

While it might seem weird to give over your personal data for a free coffee, most students quoted in news stories at the time didn’t seem too bothered. “To give out my name and email and what I study does not seem so risky to me”, said one student interviewed by NPR. “Maybe I should have been more apprehensive, but everyone has your information at this point anyway”.

Which is true. We give a lot of companies a lot of data every day, and this includes coffee companies. We sign up for their loyalty apps with the promise of rewards, and in doing so place significant trust in our favourite brands. But what happens when we freely give over our personal information to companies that aren’t careful with it?

Untrustworthy Loyalty

Loyalty apps are everywhere—most big (and many small) coffee companies offer them as a way to reward their frequent customers with promos, discounts, or advance access to new products. In exchange for these tidbits, companies gain a treasure trove of useful information: your favourite drink, how often you buy that drink, what days and times you visit, and lots more.

Previously, you might have kept a couple of dog-eared loyalty cards in your wallet, but these days it’s all digital. The convenience! Just tap your phone on the scanner at checkout. No more losing your card and those hard-earned punches. Now to check the news and see how these companies are handling that data. What’s that? They’ve been hacked? Again?

Two of the biggest coffee companies in the world, Starbucks and Dunkin’, have had numerous security breaches. Just to name a few examples: Data harvested from Singapore Starbucks customers appeared for sale on the dark web in 2022, while in 2015 the company’s app was hacked, allowing thieves to “[siphon] money away from victims”. Sometimes the crime is incredibly low-rent: Starbucks has had company laptops containing the data of thousands of employees go missing multiple times.

Dunkin’, meanwhile, was sued in 2019 for not informing nearly 20,000 customers that their accounts had been hacked. The company eventually settled, promising to refund any stolen money and pay a $650,000 fine. Another hack took place in 2022, although at least Dunkin’ informed people that time.

Now, that was all just bog-standard corporate ineptitude. At least they didn’t do any of this on purpose, right? Tim Hortons certainly can’t say as much. According to regulators, the Canadian coffee giant collected massive troves of location data from app users for more than a year, even when the app was closed, and didn’t disclose that it was doing so.

Specifically, regulators said the company tracked users “every time [they] entered or left a Tim Hortons competitor, a major sports venue, or their home or workplace”. The company’s defence was that it only used that info to analyse wider trends, like whether customers were visiting other coffee chains, but the government wasn’t so convinced.

“Tim Hortons clearly crossed the line by amassing a huge amount of highly sensitive information about its customers”, Daniel Therrien, privacy commissioner of Canada, said in a 2022 statement. “Following people’s movements every few minutes of every day was clearly an inappropriate form of surveillance”.

But don’t worry, because affected users at least got a settlement. Well, sort of—the billion-dollar company offered plaintiffs a free hot drink and a pastry. “All parties agree this is a fair settlement and we look forward to the Superior Court of Quebec’s decision on the proposal”, the company told Vice, while also emphasising that the allegations were never proven in court and the settlement doesn’t count as an admission of wrongdoing. The system works.

‘Empowering’ Farmers?

Coffee farmers might well want more technology to assist them in growing coffee. In the face of impending EU legislation around deforestation, making geotagging coffee farms accessible to smallholders could be a way to ensure that those with the least resources can still sell their goods to the world’s largest coffee market (although that assumes they have access to smartphones and the internet).

Then there is the promise of increased traceability and transparency using the blockchain, a decentralised digital ledger that hosts securely recorded transactions and shared information. There are many, many coffee projects and products with such lofty goals in mind, launched by startups as well as multinationals like IBM. Some platforms, such as one from Starbucks and Microsoft launched in 2020, offer consumers the chance to connect to the farmer who grew their coffee, in this case by scanning a QR code with the Starbucks app and tracing the journey from farm to cup.

While the companies pitched this technology as empowering for farmers, it’s not clear what actual benefit they receive. “I firmly believe that by empowering farmers with knowledge and data through technology, we can support them in ultimately improving their livelihoods”, Michelle Burns, then-senior vice president at Starbucks, said at the time. But if Starbucks were really concerned with improving farmer livelihoods, couldn’t it have just taken the money used to create this program and paid farmers more for their coffee in the first place?

If transparency doesn’t work, why not just shift the onus for better pay onto the consumer instead? That’s the pitch with various “tip the farmer” platforms, like one from Bellwether and the short-lived Propina app. However, just like tipping baristas, such concepts perpetuate skewed power dynamics between customers and workers, and remove responsibility for paying better prices from the companies  who bouwght and roasted the coffee.

There are good ideas out there for using technology to help coffee farmers—like the Coffee Change Fund, which I have written about—but like that fund, maybe more of them should actually involve those farmers in the design and implementation, and also offer tangible, demonstrable benefits.

It Will Not Stop, Ever

I have a longer piece (or maybe a series) in the works about automation and AI in the industry, but I couldn’t resist briefly discussing a downright dystopian productivity-tracking technology being promoted by NeuroSpot, a tech company from Georgia (the country, not the state).

The BaristaEye Staff Control and Customer Monitoring Video Analytics Module, to use its full name, is purportedly an AI-powered video monitoring system that offers real-time analysis of customer habits and employee productivity. A video demonstration shows CCTV footage of a coffee shop overlaid with timestamped data for customers—presumably indicating how long they’ve been idling over their drinks—as well as the workflow and number of drinks each employee has made.

Whether this is a real technology or just an example of what it could do is up for debate, but AI tracking of workers is definitely happening across many sectors—even though it negatively impacts employees. “Workers are being constantly monitored, and AI-based monitoring tools can make mistakes that can translate into unfair pay cuts or firings”, Cornell professor Virginia Doellgast told the Guardian. “Workers often don’t know what monitoring tools are being used, what data the tools are collecting or how that data is used to evaluate their performance”.

As anyone who has ever been a barista can attest, you’re always expected to be visibly working, even when it’s slow. “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean” is one of those phrases that will rattle around my head forevermore. (Check out Boss Barista for a great article on that phrase.) Baristas are used to that kind of pressure—but being filmed, tracked, and ranked by a robot feels like it’s straight from the plot of a sci-fi dystopia. 

Blurred Lines

Technology is everywhere, and it is increasingly embedded into the coffee industry, impacting everyone from farmers to baristas to customers. Some of it is good, a lot of it is stupid, and some it is invasive and horrible.

An app that gives you free coffee in exchange for your email and home address (and which only occasionally gets hacked) might seem harmless enough. But multinational companies vaguely promising prosperity for coffee farmers just so they can promote a marketing tool for their customers—or services that promise to track workers’ productivity at every moment—are more than just problematic.

Add all these examples together, and they feel like yet another sign that the coffee industry is floundering, failing to invest in the bold policies that would actually uplift those who work in the sector and help safeguard the industry’s future. The climate crisis is here, farmers are still stuck in poverty—and instead of committing to institutional change, big companies are embracing fads like AI and tracking their customers without permission.

The boundaries between the tech and coffee industries are blurring ever further, and we’re continuously being bombarded with new platforms and startups that promise to fix everything—all they need is our data.

The result? Nothing gets fixed, we’re still stuck in a crisis, and you might lose your personal information in a hack next week. But hey, at least you’ll get a free coffee out of it.