Sam Walton’s Ghost Is Watching You

Darrell, Staff Writer

Great news, libertarians: you now have a reason to be leery of Wal-Mart. It has come to my attention that Wal-Mart maintains a near-impregnable 125,000-square-foot facility in Arkansas that likely houses every slice of information about every purchase in the store’s history. Terabytes upon terabytes of data live here in this super-secretive, tornado-resistant warehouse.

You can read the article yourself, so I won’t go through every detail. The creepiest part to me, though, is that Wal-Mart is experimenting with video technology that can watch someone browse the store and facially identify the customer. The kicker: thanks to RFID tags, the system can activate whenever a customer picks up a product. No purchase is necessary; they know what you’re looking at in-store and they know who you are. Creeped out yet?

Like many, I’m not a huge fan of Wal-Mart. I usually buy only three things at a time, so a catch-all superstore isn’t attractive to me -- the day hasn’t come when I needed dog food, motor oil, some DVDs, and five new pairs of slacks all at the same time. Plus, if I ever need to walk three football fields to buy a bookcase, I’ll go to Target first (I’m conveniently ignoring Target’s creepy privacy issues, by the way).

However, I am not a vocal critic of Wal-Mart. You won’t see me picketing the opening of any store. If anything, I’m a Wal-Mart defender. They found a way to find crazy success by running huge stores across the rural and suburban centers across our great land. Wal-Mart stores allow people in formerly remote locales to easily purchase a big-screen TV or a decent six-pack of beer. True, it’s a behemoth that threatens the smaller businesses, but that’s the way things work. Popular, successful, convenient entities tend to win out, and those who don’t are forced to adapt. If you’re bothered by Wal-Mart, you’re bothered by every strip mall across the country, and what’s the point of protesting every successful American business?

I can’t decide whether this piece of Wal-Mart big-brotherism should surprise me, upset me, or please me. I know it shouldn’t surprise me -- I’m pretty much inured to the fact that corporations want as much info about us as possible. I’m not particularly upset about it because I’m privileged enough not to need to go to Wal-Mart, so I’ll just patronize a store that doesn’t make me feel like an Orwell protagonist. I’m actually somewhat pleased by this revelation because finally, I have a tangible reason to hate Wal-Mart.

Before, I could only say that Wal-Mart’s clientele depresses the hell out of me, or that the lighting in their stores was unsatisfactory (something they’ve improved in recent years). The smiley-face logo makes me uneasy. A desk I bought from them was kinda shoddy. The most tangible reason I had to hate them previously was that I think emphasizing “Made in the USA" is a bit economically narrow-minded, but even that never raised my hackles. But now -- now! They’re watching us like hawks and have all our info in a fortress! They don’t let any outsiders into the facility and guard it as if it’s Fort Knox! When I pick up a pack of razors, cameras immediately turn to me, recognize me, and a little bitlet of data shoots to Arkansas that says, “Darrell Johnson needs razors". That might not be a malevolent purpose, per se, but it’s just the breach of privacy that excites the kook in me. So thank you, Wal-Mart, for making even the most pro-corporate libertarians among us distrust you as much as everyone else does.


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