The FBI today issued an alert for a man of who made a “suspicious transaction” at an LA-area Wal-mart recently.
The FBI said a clean-shaven male, possibly of Middle Eastern descent, purchased nine Valentine teddy bears, 20 inches tall, and 14 canisters of propane, 9 inches tall, small enough to fit inside the teddy bears. The man also bought 12 packets of BBs — small, round projectiles usually fired from air guns.
Is this a war on terror story, or a marketing and technology one? Some questions it raises for me are:
1. Was it a cashier who first became alarmed, or did it get kicked out from the ongoing analysis of the
legendary amount of data Wal-Mart collects?
2. If it was the analysis of data, does this mean Wal-Mart tracks every customer’s purchase while videotaping them on a security camera and, if the customer uses a credit card, tracking them more closely than even Comcast did its Internet subscribers.
As much as I encourage companies to use data to better communicate with their customers, I fear positive use of such data will be tarnished if people begin to think companies are tracking their purchases to look for questionable patterns of behavior. For instance, Salon reports that government agencies are increasingly demanding bookstores reveal customer book purchasing records. (Wonder if that is known by the Vanderbilt student I was standing behind Sunday at the Barnes & Noble checkout counter who was asking if they had a book regarding marijuana laws.)
I’m no privacy-conspiracy nut and I support the FBI doing what it can to track down potential terrorists, but the benefits of database-enriched marketing (personalization, for instance) are threatened if such data is perceived by consumers as something that is freely shared between Uncle Sam and Sams Club.