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Big Retail Is Watching You: Exposing Walmart's Massive Data Collection Schemes

Retail giant's mass data collection is disproportionately affecting people of color, say authors

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

(Photo: Walmart Corporate/ cc/ Flickr)Outside of its growing reputation for poverty wages, worker intimidation and an overall culture of employee repression, a new report released Wednesday reveals that retail giant Walmart is also throwing its weight behind a massive consumer tracking effort with particular implications for people of color.

Authored by a coalition of consumer rights and social justice groups, the report, Consumers, Big Data and Online Tracking in the Retail Industry: A Case Study of Walmart (pdf), examines many of the ways in which large retailers—with a particular focus on Walmart—collect consumer data through mobile devices and online activity and use that information to "tease out meaningful patterns,” as noted by a November 2011 Walmart blog post.

The report notes that people of color and other marginalized and low-income communities are being disproportionately affected by such data collection since studies have shown they are less likely than wealthier consumers to protect their data or avoid the marketing ploys which target them.

“Walmart is collecting information on millions of Americans who are disproportionately low-income Black folks and other communities of color," said Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of ColorOfChange who, along with Sum of Us and the Center for Media Justice, authored the report.

According to the report:

Essentially, as companies like Walmart increasingly use data, both real and predicted, to put people into categories, the risk grows that some groups will fall disproportionately into categories which receive less favorable treatment. Professor Joseph Jerome of the Northwestern University explains: Most of the biggest concerns we have about big data—discrimination, profiling, tracking, exclusion—threaten the self-determination and personal autonomy of the poor more than any other class. Even assuming they can be informed about the value of their privacy, the poor are not in a position to pay for their privacy or to value it over a pricing discount, even if this places them into an ill-favored category. [...]

As the arena of big data and predictive privacy harms evolves, we believe consumers in general and communities of color in particular, have reason to be concerned. This is particularly true in the case of companies like Walmart—which has made clear its massive big data ambitions, has clearly spelled out its intent to market heavily to communities of color, and has, thus far, provided little transparency to allow advocates and the public to understand how their information is being used, or abused.

Among other findings, they report reveals that Walmart

  • Shares consumer data with more than 50 third parties when consumers use its apps and websites.
  • Is compiling information on tens of millions of Americans. We estimate that the company has collected data on at least 145 million Americans – more than 60% of U.S. adults. The company refers to having “petabytes” of data on consumers. One Walmart partner who receives consumer information from Walmart boasts about having data associated with 80% of U.S. email addresses.
  • Collects the real-time location of consumers using mobile devices.
  • Gives consumers no avenue to have their information held by the company deleted.
  • Does not permit consumers to completely erase app data from their phones, even when the app is uninstalled.
  • Has no real mechanism to prevent data collection from children. (The company’s privacy policy says that if parents request, Walmart “will work to delete it.”)
  • Collects the same kinds of data that retailers have used to charge higher prices to customers from areas with less competition, such as poor communities and rural areas.
  • Compiles information, together with its many third party partners, on millions of Americans that could be shared with the National Security Agency with no oversight or checks and balances, as other companies have done.

According to research cited in the report, individual consumer data analysis conducted by the retailer can be used to predict "a range of highly sensitive personal attributes" including sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, health conditions, food habits, personality traits, pregnancy status, leisure and recreational pursuits, parental separation, age, and gender.

The report comes ahead of the historic shopping day Black Friday, when Walmart employees across the country plan to strike at over 1,500 locations in a mass call for living wages, opportunities for full time employment and an end to employer retaliation.

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