Two weeks ago, we wrote about a new report raising concern about Walmart’s consumer data collection. The report, “Consumers, Big Data, and Online Tracking in the Retail Industry,” estimated that Walmart had collected the personal data of more than 145 million Americans, and technical analysis found that Walmart shared consumer data with more than 50 third party companies.
In addition to concerns about how big data is used to profile consumers without their consent, the report sounded the alarm about consumer data being used by government and law enforcement agencies.
The latest revelations about the NSA in yesterday’s Washington Post validated those warnings. The reporters explain, “According to the documents, the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, are using the small tracking files or “cookies” that advertising networks place on computers to identify people browsing the Internet.” One Google cookie in particular “allows NSA to single out an individual’s communications among the sea of Internet data in order to send out software that can hack that person’s computer.”
In addition, the NSA is using location information gathered by apps to help it locate mobile devices. According to the report about Walmart, the company’s apps and website collect geolocation information, as do Walmart’s in-store wifi networks.
Ultimately, the latest leaked NSA documents make it even clearer that corporate spying and government surveillance aren’t two separate issues. As privacy expert Ed Felten told the Washington Post:
“This shows a link between the sort of tracking that’s done by Web sites for analytics and advertising and NSA exploitation activities,” says Ed Felten, a computer scientist at Princeton University. “By allowing themselves to be tracked for analytic or advertising at least some users are making themselves more vulnerable to exploitation.”