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


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:

  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Shares consumer data with more than 50 third parties when consumers use its apps and websites.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Collects the real-time location of consumers using mobile devices.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Gives consumers no avenue to have their information held by the company deleted.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Does not permit consumers to completely erase app data from their phones, even when the app is uninstalled.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.”)
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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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