Walmart’s free phones for employees raise privacy concerns: experts

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Digital privacy experts are raising red flags about Walmart’s plans to give 740,000 employees free smartphones that the company says will improve worker productivity without collecting personal data.

Walmart said Thursday that it planned to give nearly half its US employees free Samsung Galaxy phones by the end of the year. Employees will use the phones to access the “Me@Walmart” app, which will allow them to clock in, manage shifts and communicate with supervisors.

Employees will also be allowed to take the phones home for personal use.

But Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Center of Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, had some blunt advice for Walmart workers: “Turn down the phone.”

“Employees should realize when they’re using company provided phones, the company can engage in surveillance on what they do on that phone,” West told The Post. “That can include a wide range of personal, financial and social interactions. Basically everything you do on that phone can be subject to surveillance.”

According to privacy disclosures on the Apple App Store, the “Me@Walmart” app can access employee data including financial information, precise location data and health and fitness information.

Walmart promises that this information is only used for app functions. Financial information is used for paychecks, precise location data confirms when employees clock in to work and health and fitness is used for coronavirus assessments, according to Walmart spokesperson Camille Dunn. She said that use of any individual feature was optional.

The "Me@Walmart" app in action.
Walmart promises that the information it collects is only used for app functions like scheduling shifts.
Wamart

“Walmart will not have access to any personal data,” Dunn told The Post.

She added that Walmart will not see employees’ non-work-related emails, text messages, calls, voicemails, browser history, photos, videos or location.

But West argued that the lines between work and personal information are less clear than presented by Walmart. He questioned whether employees’ personal email use and web browsing while on the clock could be monitored, for example.

On a Reddit forum used by Walmart workers, some users complained about the plan.

“Walmart will not have any access to personal data… HAHAHAHAHA,” wrote one apparent employee.

Another said, “Nah, we good. Keep it.”

United for Respect, a labor advocacy group, painted the smartphone initiative as a distraction from low wages at Walmart.

“Associates don’t need free smartphones, they need a starting wage of $15 and a voice in health and safety on the job,” the group’s corporate accountability director Bianca Agustin told The Post.

Another apparent Walmart employee wrote on Reddit, “Keep it and give me my $15 already.”

Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at the civil liberties-focused nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Walmart workers who choose to accept smartphones should turn them off when they leave work and keep a separate device for personal use.

“If you can afford having a different phone for your personal life, I would highly recommend to do that,” he said.

Andrés Arrieta of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that Walmart workers who choose to accept smartphones should turn them off when the leave work and keep a separate device for personal use.
Andrés Arrieta of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said Walmart workers who choose to accept smartphones should turn them off when they leave work and keep a separate device for personal use.
Wamart

Like West, Arrieta said the lines between personal and work data are often blurred.

“If the app needs your contacts because your co-worker needs you to call them, the app can’t necessarily tell which contacts in your list [are work-related] and which aren’t,” he said. “It starts getting really complicated.”

Nonetheless, Arrieta said he did not “necessarily assume this a nefarious app.” He said that if companies are going to require employees to use apps, providing work devices for free is better than requiring them to install the apps on their personal phones.

“We’ve seen in the past that employers will force employees to install these very intrusive applications in their personal phones,” he said. “I think it’s a good step that they’re saying, ‘We’re going to give you another phone for free.’”

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