Post-Snowden McDonalds
January 12, 2014 12:17 PM   Subscribe

At the McDonalds drive-thru, the first thing they say to me when I pull up is "Welcome Back!". Is this good corporate policy?

I admit I go to McDonalds too often, and I admit my fancy red car is quite recognizable. It concerns me greatly, though, that the first thing the McDonald's drive-thru people are saying is "Welcome Back!" Are they running my license plate through a database, in near-real time? Are they saying "Welcome Back!" to everyone that pulls up? Is this a new nation-wide policy, or just happening at my local drive-thru? Has anyone else had this happen?

If they are scanning license plates, I would like to know. Now.
posted by shipbreaker to Technology (58 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A cursory Google makes clear that this is, or was, a standard greeting.
posted by kmennie at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2014 [16 favorites]

Scanning license plates seems like an absurd, time-consuming, expensive, and completely useless thing for a McDonald's franchise to do. They've definitely said it to me and I go there every couple of months and to different locations.

Wendy's says, "I'll see you tomorrow!" which caught me off guard at first but must have worked subliminally because I did, in fact, go back the next day.
posted by magnetsphere at 12:28 PM on January 12, 2014 [13 favorites]

If the reason they treated you as a return customer was because a computer system told them to, it may actually have done facial recognition on you. Retail organizations are getting rid of their "loyalty card" programs because they aren't needed any more: they know who you are when you step up to the register, and probably even before you get out of your car. I wouldn't be surprised if in some cases there's an index somewhere of which products you've paused to look at as you walk around the store, from every time you've been there going back to when the system was installed.
3VR’s Video Intelligence Platform (VIP)™ transforms customer service by allowing businesses to:
  • Optimize staffing decisions, increase sales conversion rates and decrease customer wait times by bringing extraordinary clarity to the analysis of traffic patterns
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  • Increase competitiveness by using 3VR’s facial surveillance analytic to facilitate personalized customer greetings by employees
  • Create loyalty programs by combining point of sale (POS) data with facial recognition
posted by XMLicious at 12:31 PM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

We have "welcome back" right here on mefi.
posted by brujita at 12:32 PM on January 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

I'd guess that there's a 99.9% chance that any person visiting an American McDonald's has been to a McDonald's before. Why use a massively expensive, hyper-complex computer algorithm to guess something like that, when just saying it to everyone wlll be correct almost every single time?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:35 PM on January 12, 2014 [61 favorites]

McDonald's has sold at least 35 times as many burgers as there are people alive in the world. Ask yourself what the odds are that anyone going through a McDonald's drive-thru has never been to a McDonald's before.
posted by Etrigan at 12:36 PM on January 12, 2014 [10 favorites]

When I worked at retail there were definitely repeat customers who we saw over and over who I recognized. I highly highly doubt that there's anything more creepy going on here other than being recognized by other humans you see on a regular basis.
posted by bleep at 12:36 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

shipbreaker: " Are they saying "Welcome Back!" to everyone that pulls up?"

This is the most likely case; the percentage of customers who are visiting McDonalds for the first time has got to be vanishingly small. For example everyday McDonalds sees ~8% of Canadians.
posted by Mitheral at 12:46 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

If they are scanning license plates, I would like to know. Now.

They're not.
posted by ftm at 12:48 PM on January 12, 2014 [7 favorites]

Have you considered that the drive-thru people might actually be recognizing you? You say you have a recognizable car, but when I worked a drive-thru, I absolutely recognized people who came through on a regular basis. I could recognize some by voice, some by order, some by vehicle, some by the time they came through. There's not a lot to think about in that kind of job.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:49 PM on January 12, 2014 [16 favorites]

I would also guess that even in the infinitesimally small chance you are a first time McDonald's visitor, my guess the average first timer goes inside vs. the drive thru. I can't explain why I think this though...
posted by ill3 at 12:50 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

What makes people think they're not scanning license plates?

For retailers, knowing who is coming in to your store and what products they're buying is absolute gold.

It's really not that expensive or difficult. Why wouldn't they?
posted by saintsguy at 12:59 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's a little funny you jumped right to "they're tracking me" instead of, "they recognized me". I'm with those who say these people recognized you. And it's not so surprising you did not recognize them back, because most people barely look fast food workers in the eye. (I hope you don't think that's a personal attack. I actually think it's true of most people.)

I have thought about this recently, because there is a woman who checks receipts at Costco who, after a few visits, now regularly says to me "It's so nice to see you". It's charming customer service, from someone doing their darndest to be nice in maybe not the ideal job. So, do you say thank you, or just glare suspiciously?
posted by Glinn at 1:04 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think this is just cutesy marketing.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 1:04 PM on January 12, 2014

There has been talk in the media lately about the things stores are doing to track customers in the real world and try to get anything approaching the type of data they can collect about shoppers online—like following your phone's Wi-Fi signal when you're in the store, or tracking the purchases you make as a repeat customer in-store. Those are things that are happening, and it's certainly possible that McDonald's is developing some sort of tracking technology for their stores and/or drive-throughs.

But is it probable? I don't know. Odds are, it's just corporate policy to say, as MetaFilter does, "welcome back." Or they recognize you because of your fancy car, and/or because people really do recognize other people sometimes—that is certainly a thing that happens as well.

You should work on recognizing them—at very least because it's nice, secondarily because if you recognize them you'll know whether it's possible that a given individual recognizes you, and also because, perhaps, the best defense is a good offense?
posted by limeonaire at 1:29 PM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

The fact that McDonalds has lots of traffic would make compilation and analysis of identity and behavior data more valuable. It was Google and other high-traffic web sites which really began leveraging this stuff online, not obscure low-traffic sites.

I'd agree that odds are this particular visit mentioned by the OP, circa 2014, wasn't tracked that way but the types of surveillance systems he's asking about do exist and are in use in mundane everyday locations.

(Though it doesn't have anything to do with Snowden and the NSA. For a couple of decades or more now you've likely been on camera and recorded as you pass though fast-food drive-thrus, anyways. Closed-circuit cameras already being all over the place in the 21st century is part of the reason that for any organization which is upgrading to digital cameras and centrally backing up their output, or which has already done so, software to sift through and analyze all that data is a marginal additional cost.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:32 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the last year or two Taco Bell has made their DT crew open the transaction with "How are you doing today?" and nothing else.

Aside from the awkward way to open a sales transaction, this is just new warm/fuzzy verbiage suggested by corp and nothing more. Obviously everyone in the QSR arena thinks this is the future or McDs wouldn't copy it.

They're not reading your face or plate.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:45 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would like everyone saying "They're not reading your face or your plate" to rethink their answer. Try on my tinfoil hat, just for a moment.

When I pull up to the McDonald's drive-thru, a camera records my car's license plate number.

When I pull up to the payment window, a camera aimed directly at my face records my face.

If I am using a credit card and not cash, that data gets recorded too.

Do you understand how valuable it is to police, spooks and governments to have that kind of triple-connected data?

=== === ===

Is anyone in the world going to be surprised when, four years from now, Edward Snowden the Second is able to reveal and prove that yes, in fact, McDonalds was busily scanning the faces, cars and bankcards of all of its customers, and handing the data over under a secret spooky gag order?

Not me.

Will we have any legal recourse or class-action lawsuit?


The slippery slopes, of evil? They are golden arches.
posted by shipbreaker at 1:56 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

All of that can be true and have nothing to do with the fact that customer service people are trained to use meaningless social niceties.
posted by bleep at 1:58 PM on January 12, 2014 [26 favorites]

McDonald's is not the NSA. At most drive-thrus I've been to you're lucky if the speaker has not been gutted, and if it actually works well enough for you and the cashier to be intelligible to each other.

Leaving aside the fact that doing it without customer consent would be illegal in many or most places, the idea of them investing in the technology to track license plates so they can say "Welcome back!" to certain people is not plausible. It's not the technology doesn't exist, it's that it's not being used in McDonald's drive thrus. It just isn't.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:08 PM on January 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

You're a frequent visitor with a car that stands out. If you're going to the same McDonald's most of the time, at around the same time each day, you're likely encountering the same workers on most of your visits. Why would you automatically leap to ZOMG THEY'RE SPYING ON ME!!!1!!!!!1!!!11!!!!! and not simply assume that they recognized you because you make repeated visits there, in a highly recognizable car?
posted by palomar at 2:09 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's really not that expensive or difficult. Why wouldn't they?

Because this is something McDonald's simply doesn't need to do. They're like Coca-Cola; they don't actually have to advertise anything anywhere. New products maybe, but that's it.

There is not one ounce of sense in McD's purchasing such a system and rolling it out to however many tens of thousands of restaurants. This is a matter of ain't broke, don't fix it.

I would like everyone saying "They're not reading your face or your plate" to rethink their answer. Try on my tinfoil hat, just for a moment.

Are you actually here to ask a question and pay attention to the answers, or are you grinding an axe?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:10 PM on January 12, 2014 [37 favorites]

It would also require training minimum-wage cashiers to use this technology and (assuming they wanted to keep it secret) ensuring that none of their millions of employees, who have no particular reason to be loyal to the company that pays them minimum wage, ever mentioned it online or in casual conversation.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:10 PM on January 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Honestly, I think you would have a much better case, shipbreaker, that this is going on if McDonald's had said something like, "Would you like to get your usual apple pie?" or something like that. There is absolutely no commercial benefit in scanning someone's license plate or face, then using that information to say, "welcome back" especially since as discussed just about anyone with a driver's license in the US is probably a return customer (even if your only prior McDonald's visit was from someone's birthday party at the age of 6)

I will say that interestingly enough, my dad told me a story about the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Bangkok, that he visited in 1990, and as he walked through the door they said, "Welcome back, Mr. MyDadsLastName". He had only been to the hotel once before, 2 years prior. This definitely would have been before facial recognition systems would have been affordable or even possible for a hotel. Granted they had the benefit of knowing the names of every person that was checking in that night - and my father is somewhat known in the business world. Still, I thought it was a neat trick/bit of customer service.
posted by ill3 at 2:11 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

MacDonalds is definitely not scanning your license plate.

However, everybody you drive by can see your license plate, your computer is broadcasting an IP address and hacker's can use this to track you down and infect your computer, etc

There's a reasonable expectation of privacy and then there's worrying way too much about everybody looking at public and obvious things to the point where you probably just shouldn't go out in public at all, or seek psychological help, if this is bothering you that much
posted by tehloki at 2:12 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I worked as a Safeway cashier for four years and I absolutely remembered regular faces, right down to the names on their checks, and especially more so if they were friendly or chatty. I think it's just that you're seeing some longtime staff recognizing you and your car, nothing more.
posted by vickyverky at 2:19 PM on January 12, 2014

It would be weird for this to be standard policy, because while nearly every adult who goes to McDonald's has gone there since childhood, it's not necessarily always at the same location. I guess if they specifically say "Welcome back to McDonald's," I'd probably not notice. But just "Welcome back!" at a location I've never been to might leave me confused for a second.

Strangely, just as I was about to write, there was a FedEx ad where a clerk greets a customer with "Welcome back!"
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:20 PM on January 12, 2014

Here's an article about McDonalds' use of data collection.

Basically every large company that you interact with is collecting and storing every single piece of information on you that they can afford to collect and store and that they are legally allowed to collect and store (or for which they can defend against any lawsuits cheaply). These companies also have an interest in continuing to do this, so they generally do not just hand it over to the government without a subpoena. They will likely comply with most subpoenas though.

If you don't want the government getting any such information, then you need to stop interacting with large corporations.
posted by melissasaurus at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

The slippery slopes, of evil? They are golden arches.

I don't know whether they are scanning the plates of your fancy red car, but if this is a real concern for you I will suggest not patronizing that establishment.
posted by trip and a half at 2:43 PM on January 12, 2014 [12 favorites]

Can you clarify when exactly they are saying "welcome back" to you? Is it when you pull up to the speaker? Or when you pull to the first window to pay?

When you pull to the speaker, are you sure it is a human that is speaking to you and not the drive-thru robot that the McD's near me have, that always great me with something like "Hello, would you like to try [sandwich that we are pushing this month]?" I know it's a robot because often I will start to order and then the actual human ringing me up will cut in for some reason (and often that human is male, whereas the robot's voice sounds female.

If it's a human saying "welcome back", my guess is that they recognize you, personally. Have you tried going to a different drive-thru to see what happens?

If it's the robot, then I'm more willing to lean towards it just being a standard thing that they say to everybody. I feel like if McDonald's _were_ tracking license plates/faces, they'd find a better way to monetize it. Something like: "Hello! Would you like order the usual again? Or treat yourself to a [sundae/pie thing/dessert that you sometimes order but not always"
posted by sparklemotion at 2:48 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Look up the rig necessary to scan a plate. There's a great DEFCON talk recently on it. You'll notice the cameras are somewhat larger, crammed with Infrared emitters, and pointed right at the plate area. Now see if your McDs has something similar. Feel free to walk the lot.

Having actually met and worked with people from McD's tech group, I'm fairly confident that they're nowhere near as sophisticated as one would believe in this area. There's no upside to this kind of tracking at this point in time, the cost is too large for franchisees (who believe it or not dont have to buy everything Corp dictates), and implementation is just way too hard.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:58 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's got nothing to do with anybody (human or computer) actually recognising you or your car. It's just bog-standard corporate strategy.

Some marketing guru or 'consumer behavioural psychologist' or NLP expert or whatever, told managers at Maccas that 'Welcome back' makes customers feel as if they're coming home, or some bullshit. And then those managers told their underpaid minions to say that to everyone. So the minions, if they remember it, say it to everyone.

It's not personal. Really.
posted by Salamander at 3:01 PM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I wear a tin foil hat myself, more often than I care to admit. When I call in a pick up order to PF Changs, they use a centralized location that sends the order to your local restaurant. Whenever I call from a known number, they greet me by name and ask if I want to order the same thing I had last time and then they mention the kung pao chicken and the spicy green beans and the... I am not sure why, but this concerned me enough to start blocking my number or using a different phone when placing my orders. I felt that the tradeoff between good customer service aka knowing your customer and my privacy was too far over the line. I am quite sure if subpoenaed, they would give up what I had to eat and what time to the police. But the police are not my concern. It is the same concern I would have if McDonalds is tracking my visits and what I ordered.

What if my health insurance company were to get ahold of that information? Could they deny a claim regarding my heart based on my actions? Could they raise my rates based on my trailing 30 days worth of meals?

My guess is that many McDonald's and other similar businesses are tracking customers in some way. I would bet that Mickey D's intent is simply to be more efficient or improve food or wait times or something innocuous as the above linked article says. However, that can morph and cross the line.

I have no direct knowledge of what they are doing, but I assume they are using a license plate reader (maybe under the guise of security?) and I act accordingly. If you are concerned about the data falling into the wrong hands, don't create the data. Or borrow a friend's car whenever you go to the drive thru. At least then they think he is the calorie consuming beef eating frequent visitor.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:05 PM on January 12, 2014

Is anyone in the world going to be surprised when, four years from now, Edward Snowden the Second is able to reveal and prove that yes, in fact, McDonalds was busily scanning the faces, cars and bankcards of all of its customers, and handing the data over under a secret spooky gag order?
Well, no, I suspect that well-informed people wouldn't be surprised.

It's almost certain that McDonalds is linking credit card data to ordering patterns where possible. Most big companies do, these days. You know that the drive-thru has a camera, because you can see it from your car. If they aren't linking screenshots or vehicle data to your customer profile, it's probably due to technical/cost limitations.

None of this has much to do with people saying "Welcome back!" when you come through, though. Seriously, if McDonalds was able to look up your license plate on the fly, do you think they would utilize it so poorly? That kind of technology would be expensive, and you're not showing us any evidence that they are using it to sell to you or personalize your experience in any way.

Your reluctance to believe that your local fast food workers could recognize your "fancy red car" feels kind of crappy, I have to say. I worked wage-slave jobs all through college, and some of my coworkers had very sharp memories. Don't let your tinfoil hat keep from seeing the real, live humans serving you.
posted by catalytics at 3:19 PM on January 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

Your concern seems to be that this is related to national security. If it were, why would they alert you to the fact that the technology is in place?
posted by one_bean at 3:27 PM on January 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I agree with fecless fear that OP has an axe to grind here. He has marked correct the two answers that match his hypothesis even though they are hardly favorited by anyone else. IMHO this was not a question, but a platform for him to express his pov. Also, the article on McDonald's and Big Data does not suggest anything that they are tracking individual identity. There is nothing wrong with corporations analyzing their consumers aggregate habits and preferences. McDonald's has been doing this forever - in fact, there is a story about a McD's franchise owner in the 1970s recognizing that his native Cincinnati population was very Catholic - so he invented the Hula Burger which used a slice of pineapple so the Catholics would have a menu option on Fridays. This was eventually superseded by the Filet O'Fish. In my mind, there is a very big difference between a company saying, "Wow I must have a lot of Catholics in the area because my sales are down on Fridays" and "Wow, Bob Jones is a Catholic and I am going to cater or market to him in a certain way."

You want to see something that is actually kind of creepy, check this out :Target knows you're pregnant
posted by ill3 at 3:29 PM on January 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

When I glanced at AskMe this afternoon I noticed your question and your username, and I knew immediately that I had seen quite a few of your past questions. Do you want to know what kind of sneaky spooky spy algorithm I used to deduce this? I used my memory.

Do you not think it is possible that the people waiting on you at McDonald's simply remember seeing you often and that they recognize you from this frequent past interaction? I'm not entirely sure why you would go immediately to "OMG SPY CAMERAS" when "humans have memories" is right there being obvious.
posted by elizardbits at 3:43 PM on January 12, 2014 [16 favorites]

[Shipbreaker, this is not at all the place where you argue with people who are trying to answer your question. Feel free to ignore the ones you don't agree with. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 3:47 PM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Welcome back" is well within the range of typical greetings.

But, even more than that:

I have no idea about McD's, but I work part-time at one of the other top fast food retailers in the U.S. (Though it's at the not-highly-corporately-controlled end of the spectrum, unlike MdD's.)

Honest to God, if you ASKED an employee there about this, we'd be too freaking busy laughing to answer you. We're lucky to have money to update things like our point-of-sale system and the headsets to have *that* kind of nonsense going on! (As in, there's no video camera ANYWHERE in the place. We have a cheap-o motion detector for the alarm system, and it's had the same passcode for at least the last 12 years.)

Even the brand-spankin'-new Jack In The Box they put a few years ago in a nearby town is starting to show it's age these days. Sure, they put in a bunch of video cameras and monitors when they opened, so it's easier for 1) the manager to supervise the employees, and 2) it's easier for employees to see where customers are, and if they might need help.

Videoing your car? Dude, almost nowhere does that - if they're set up like most places are, they saw you drive through the parking lot on the way to the drive-thru. My co-workers do it all the time. In fact, say it's the guy who ALWAYS orders a fish sandwhich - which we only cook to order. By the time he's ordering, unless we're SUPER busy, they've already told me over the headset, hey, it's fish-sandwich guy - and it's halfway cooked.

Fast food workers are pretty much NOT stupid, regardless of what the public at large would like to believe. Despite the fact that everyone complains about mistakes, those are a teeny-tiny percentage of our orders. We remember customers, we remember who they come in with, chances are we even remember their regular order, if they frequently order the same thing. And we often do it while doing two or three or ten other things.

The *only* time there might be video cameras would be in high-crime areas.

So... I guess, if you're paranoid about McD's, shop elsewhere. Pick a little more run-down restaurant. Any of them.

Oh, yeah. And if you don't want anyone taking pics of your license plate, you might want to stop buying gas... or crossing any toll bridges/roads.
posted by stormyteal at 4:19 PM on January 12, 2014 [18 favorites]

I will add, I've gotten the Welcome Back at my local McDs, and I go maybe once a month to a store that turns their crew over like crazy. I usually park near the exit and walk inside, which is faster and more accurate than the DT service.
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:39 PM on January 12, 2014

I drive a highly recognisable car and there are dogwalkers who recognise me and my daughter on our route to kindy.

I used to work in a library, and yeah, I would recognise people, sometimes from months ago. And a portion of those people would get highly offended and assume I'm checking records and taking photos and checking surveillance* when it's just that I helped them, they were a customer to me, but I was a faceless drone to them. So when *I* recognised them, they didn't see me as 'that nice librarian lady' they saw me as 'faceless arm of local govt'.

Exactly how is all this info being transmitted to the drivethru worker though? Given the regulations around public facing cameras, do you think that they have one in the driveway that pings your car, checks back with the database, transmits it through to the worker (who is apparently staring at a screen waiting for that info rather than working), who reads it and parses it quickly enough to greet you with a highly generic welcome (that makes a sort of twisted NLP marketing sense)? How is that more likely than one or more of the workers going 'aw man, there's that fucking sweet red car again, dude loves himself some drive thru, check it out when he comes in'?

I understand the cross marketing and the surveillance/tracking as part of that marketing, but you're still talking about a very human interaction that is bounded by some class structures whereby the worker is McDonalds, but you are an individual, so it doesn't matter if it's Joe the car nut who is recognising you, you wouldn't recognise him as anything other than McDonalds.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:09 PM on January 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

*The one time I checked surveillance was for an attempted offence against a child. The rigmarole to get to the tapes was intense, even with cops. Random drive thru worker gets what is on the screen, that's it.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:25 PM on January 12, 2014

There is no business reason for McDonalds to implement a complex recognition system just to know if someone is a repeat customer or not. Almost every person old enough to drive up to a drive-thru has been to a McDonald's before, so why not greet them with a friendly "Welcome Back"?

If you pull up to the speaker and they say "Hey, how were those apple pies from last time?" then you can worry.
posted by the jam at 5:25 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

as some background - i was in no way surprised by the snowden revelations. i feel like pretty much everything we found out is stuff that's been discussed in every liberal hacker political agitation space i've been part of since the late 90s/early 2000s. i think you're probably in the same place - where snowden confirmed things you strongly suspected, not that snowden reveled things you never thought possible.

it's easy to assume that mcdonalds is tracking you through purchases and credit card data personally and more broadly looking at census data for your area and taking note of purchases. i don't think anyone would argue that these things aren't easy and likely. i used to work for a department store and a few months after 9/11 a new line flashed by while booting our cash registers that was worded in such a way that at least suggested the government was getting a copy of all of our transactions, even though i knew congress denied the law that would give that ability. so...yeah, the signs for this sort of tracking was around long before people were admitting it.

where your theory falls down is that they're tracking you through cameras, analyzing that data, and feeding it to the person taking your order prompting them to say "welcome back" instead of another greeting. this is an extraordinary leap. first of all, a lot of the people who i know that work fast food are part of anonymous to one degree or another (and i don't think this is something special to my social circle). if this were happening, you'd find a big write up about it on reddit and youtube and 4chan and blog posts by cory doctorow, and any other place that people who care about this sort of thing congregate. secondly, mcdonalds got rid of the central call center taking orders, so you're suggesting that people are somehow getting alerted to the license plate scan while taking orders for two windows, taking money, maybe putting together orders, maybe delivering food, maybe also working the counter. you're also expecting that this is happening at franchise locations. this makes me think you've never worked a job like this if you think this is possible, much less likely, at the level you're discussing.

it makes way more sense that it's part of a standard script, like you'd find for any sort of repeated job like this. when you call the cable company and they say something like "did i resolve the issue to your satisfaction?" that's a sentence that's been studied and the powers that be have decided that wording is the most likely to get a yes, not that it's the most likely to get an honest answer. a similar thing is happening with "welcome back!" they're forcing familiarity that encourages repeat customers. for a small percentage of their customers, it will squick them out - but the majority responds favorably (or mcdonalds thinks they do) which is why they use it.

so, going back to the first paragraph for a minute. sometimes when there's something like the snowden revelations that confirm things you've been telling people for years, there's this completely natural thing that happens where you start to think, "well if this 30% was true - then what about the other 70%?!" and i think it's good too keep looking around and keep considering things that don't make sense on their surface, like google's "do no evil" bs. but i think we have to be careful that we don't lose our ability to look at things critically. if this idea didn't confirm to your world view, you'd instantly see why it's exceedingly unlikely to be happening in the way you think.
posted by nadawi at 5:29 PM on January 12, 2014 [10 favorites]

When I checked in at a long-distance bike ride last October, I was greeted by name by a woman who had seen me once the previous year when I checked in, and perhaps once two years before that. I'm not terribly distinctive in my looks, and my name isn't unusual. Some people just have a really good memory. Odds are that the cashier(s) just remember you because (a) you are there often and (b) you have a recognizable car.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:50 PM on January 12, 2014

I'm a former (and perhaps future!) food service worker, and I recognized and greeted even semi-regular customers because it makes good sense (and some of them were actually really great, so I'd be happy to see them). In the case of McD's, I would not be in the least surprised that the greeting is corporate or franchise policy.

I drive the same route every day, at approximately the same time. I recognize a number of cars, because we're all going the same direction at about the same time every damn day; my car is also quite distinctive (because it has bird stickers on it, not because it's fancy), and I'd bet that a number of my fellow commuters also recognize my car. We never get the opportunity to express this, of course, because we're going 70 mph.

Can you explain (if only to yourself), why it is *more* likely that they are scanning your license plate etc. than that it's just a standard greeting all workers are required to give, or that the workers just recognize you?
posted by rtha at 7:58 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

If anything, they have some crummy little black and white camera that shows that a car has pulled up to the drive-thru menu/microphone/kiosk thing, and they recognize your fancy car. It's not likely that McDonald's has some instantly accessible data base that instantaneously reads your license plate, queries the database, and give the worker a prompt. Why? WTF would they do that when they could just say "welcome back to McDonald's, may I take your order?" and be right 99% of the time anyway?
posted by oneirodynia at 8:46 PM on January 12, 2014

If having your behavior tracked by corporate restaurant chains bothers you, there's an easy solution -- take your business to small locally owned restaurants.

There are owner-run fast food restaurants out there that would be happy to have your business, and where you can be assured that if they say "Welcome back!", it's because they recognized you.
posted by yohko at 9:42 PM on January 12, 2014

Ask them.

I saw a repeat of (an admittedly Oz-centric, but still) a tv show the other night made in Sept. by a very respectable non-commercial current affairs team. I am still reeling a bit about the extent and diversity of corporate & police & govt. informational skimming (my term, but, you know: ALL the different ways we are tracked etc etc) and I don't want to go into it here least reason being because I can't be sure of all my facts.

Anyway, the 2 parts that really did stick with me are privacy and upper level contracts. Most of us 1st world countries have protections in law that our privacy is or should be safeguarded, just ..uh.. leaving Snowden revelations aside. One of the ways that companies get around this seeming hurdle (more like sub-ripple) is to reinvent what 'privacy' means.

That leads me to the 2nd point: a HUGE supermarket chain here bought a 50% stake in a big data crunching company. That data crunching co. has full contractual access to one of the largest Australian banks' transaction details. Thus, the supermarket now has access to double the amount of personal data for mining. And this is the fun/terrifying part: they say that because there is no name attached to the record that it is therefore no invasion of privacy (constituting their only public statement on the matter). I imagine it would be trivial to identify someone with records of everything they bought and every bank transaction they've ever made!!

Australia has a pop'n of ~23million. The supermarket has, say, 8m customers & the bank also has 8m customers. So this one contract means that the bank and the supermarket now have hugely detailed data on 50%+ of the population. How much extra leverage against their competition did that manoeuvre just net them I wonder?

No doubt, USA being bigger and better at all things capitalistic, collusion and informational trading and citizen spying/skimming occurs at much greater scales than in the Antipodes. Companies like McDonalds may not benefit directly in the particular case of the OP (facial recog./license cams), but it wouldn't surprise me that companies of a certain size just have to engage in these nefarious practices because there are other streams of useful information that will flow back to them by virtue of all sorts of corporate associations/contracts that we never hear about. Plus: follow the leader stupidity.

I have a relative working in phone security and particularly with store beacons and phone wifi invasions: he says it's RIFE in retail outlets.

The real world is getting a lot like the internet with all this secret tracking. Where's my cookie?!
posted by peacay at 10:31 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

McDonald's is probably not scanning your license plate, but everyone else is. And it's not the NSA that's gathering the data, but TransUnion. They sell the reports for $10 a pop.
posted by Sxyzzx at 11:57 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Is anyone in the world going to be surprised


But do you have any actual evidence that they're doing this now?


Had you already made up your mind that the answer was 'yes' when you came in here?


Come back when you drive up in Mr Smith's car (not your own) and they say 'Welcome back, Mr Smith. Your regular Filet O' Fish?'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:10 AM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

The "Welcome back" greeting is simply marketing. It subtly creates the impression that this is a friendly, regular, familiar place for you. It also subtly implants the message that you will return. Whereas "Welcome to McDonalds" implies that you're a total stranger who has never been to McD's before.

Seriously. Corporations like McD's have entire departments and contractors who work on little things things like this.

Take the foil hat off.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:11 AM on January 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

At my local McDonalds, the ice cream machine is working 50% of the time, and the credit card reader has been down for about 72 hours.

While it's entirely possible that McDonalds wants to get to know you that well, it's more likely that it's just that franchisee's standard greeting.

I agree, surveilance has intensified and that technology has made it cheap and easy to do these kinds of things. I just don't think they're there yet.

So you and your fancy car are now regulars at your local golden arches. I'm known by my order at mine (it's kind of floofy.) I also speak to the folks behind the window, in English and in Spanish (my coffee order is easier in Spanish, if that makes sense)

I look at it as a business that values my patronage, rather than big brother reaching into my breakfast bag.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:05 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'll tell you an anecdote:

My father, post-divorce in the early 1980s, got into a McDonald's breakfast habit. He'd stop for breakfast at the same McDonalds on his way to work, about the same time, and order the same thing.

(I suspect this was before surveillance cameras were common. When he told this story, he said he looked for a camera the next time he was there, but didn't see one.)

One morning, he arrived at the speaker, and before he'd even said a word, the cashier responded, "good morning, sir. $2.14, please pull up to the window."

He got to the window and his regular order was waiting for him with the smiling cashier. "How did you know it was me, and what I wanted?"

She replied, "You always arrive at 6:45 AM playing classical music on your radio. When I saw the time and heard the music, I knew what you'd order."

My dad thought this was fantastic customer service. Today it might be considered kind of creepy with privacy concerns. But the point that relates to you - the cashier connected his order with the TIME and the MUSIC. People have memories, and habits, and each influences the other.
posted by Ardea alba at 7:35 AM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

There is no one here who can tell you that this particular restaurant is not scanning license plates, using facial recognition technology, or using some other way of knowing who you are. The easiest solution would be to ask someone at the drive through "Hey, when you welcomed me back, why was that? Did you recognize me?"

If you choose to believe that the hourly wage employees are in on it, then continue reading.

You're making a supposition based on a single hypothesis without testing any of the variable factors. Have you considered either going through the drive through in a friend's car, or sending a friend who has never been to this McDonald's location, to see if they receive the same greeting?

Send a friend who has never been to McDonald's to that drive through. If they do not receive the greeting, send them again. Then, if they do receive the greeting, start switching things up -- have a third party drive their car, or temporarily swap license plates (do not do so for more than the distance to and from the McDonald's parking lot).
posted by mikeh at 9:27 AM on January 13, 2014

Mr. Adams and I got the same greeting at a McDonald's right before Christmas when we went through the drive-through on our way out of town. It was not a branch we frequent, it just happened to be near the freeway we were taking. And we were in a rental car. I didn't think twice about the "Welcome back", I was just concentrating on making sure they got Mr. Adams' coffee order correct (cream and two Splendas).
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:42 AM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

The slippery slopes, of evil? They are golden arches.

This is true in terms of their dietary contributions to the world, but there's no way they're scanning your license plate or face real-time. Last time I went to a MDs they had trouble getting my simple order correct and giving me correct change, for crying out loud.

Or, whatever, indulge your inner conspiracy crackpot and flee to somewhere else, hopefully with healthier food.
posted by aught at 2:06 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you were going to a McDonalds as an adult for the first time in your life, wouldn't you want to park the car and eat inside?
posted by oceanjesse at 11:31 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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