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Wal-mart Tags Shoppers with Subcutaneous Cookies
November 18, 2009
WALVILLE, ARK.--Responding to public requests from privacy advocates, retailing giant Wal-mart agreed Wednesday to release details concerning a newly-implemented system for tracking shoppers in its Wal-mart and Sam's Club stores. "We understand that there is some sensitivity surrounding this initiative," notes Wal-mart spokesman Joel Scent, "And we want to be entirely upfront and open about the program and the ways it will benefit our shopping family. We've been testing the system in a few pilot stores--we've made no secret about that--and now, with that experience behind us, we're ready to talk about the program."
Tested over the past three months in 23 stores across the U.S., the tagging system, known as the In-store Cookie System, or ICS, uses a proprietary combination of electro-magnetic and channeled-particle beams to produce a "persistent, informationally-significant, quantum-molecular structured excitation" just beneath the surface of the skin. "It's really quite simple," explains Scent. "The ICS muzzle is positioned with our security cameras at a store's entrance. As a shopper comes in, the system sends out a series of invisible beams that harmlessly arranges some of the molecules in her forehead. Initially, the molecules are arranged to encode some information, just a unique identifying number, but during the course of the engagement the Cookie might be extended with some additional codes to help us customize and improve the shopping experience."
Stores making use of ICS are equipped throughout with camera-like Cookie-readers capable of uniquely identifying and tracking shoppers as they move through the store. Shopper's movements are then translated into a schematic of concatenated three-dimensional vectors and recorded in the ICS database for later analysis. Cookie-readers mounted in shelves, connected wirelessly to the adaptive packaging of some products, enables products to tailor their pitches based on assumptions derived from customers' shopping trajectories. "It was a little eerie," notes a shopper in a Chicago pilot store. "I guess it was because I was in the baby aisle first, but everywhere I went all the boxes started having pictures of cute babies on them. I even saw a Pillsbury Doughbaby. And everything seemed to say 'Safe for your Baby,' or something like that, in big, bright letters."
Besides enabling products to tailor their packaging, ICS, used in conjunction with adaptive price tags, enables stores to offer special bargains to shoppers, and even to offer lower prices to shoppers whose trajectories suggest indecision. "The real benefit to shoppers is that the information we gather through ICS will help us offer shopper-specific bargain bundles of related products," notes Scent. "Say the system sees that a shopper has been looking at boy's clothing and has also been in automotive fixtures, now, with adaptive packaging, we can add a little coupon on that underwear package for a discount on a Hot Wheels car or something."
Critics of ICS point to just such customized bargains as one of the system's many drawbacks. "There's a reason they call it 'price discrimination,'" exclaims Coalition for Economic Justice chairman Silas Lift. "Besides being a deep invasion of privacy, Wal-mart's tag-and-track system will result in the worst sort of red-lining. Those who can buy more will get better prices while those who can't afford to will simply pay more."
A number of critics also point to reported inadequacies in the 'opt-out' method implemented in the test stores. "To opt-out you've got to wear this ridiculous yellow hat that says 'OPT-OUT' in big black letters," notes Anonymous League president June Clever. "It turns out that the test stores kept these hats behind a counter and most shoppers didn't even know about them. We've also heard stories about inadequate supplies of hats. We at the League are advocating a switch to an 'opt-in' hat to be worn by shoppers who clearly consent to data collection."
Wal-mart plans to begin worldwide rollout of ICS early next year, and is in early negotiations to license the system to partner retailers and grocers.
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