Business Columns & Blogs

The security tradeoffs aren’t worth having our groceries delivered or shopping tracked

The August Smart Lock could allow Walmart to stock your pantry and refrigerator.
The August Smart Lock could allow Walmart to stock your pantry and refrigerator. TNS

Our everyday lives continue to take on a digital spin, and you can never tell when some formerly unconnected object might solve a problem, or create one. Ask the New York Yankees, who learned recently that the archrival Boston Red Sox had been stealing signs, using what was first reported as an Apple Watch and later determined to be a Fitbit fitness tracker.

Exactly how you steal signs with a Fitbit is beyond me, but as the stealing of signs is a hoary tradition in baseball, I’m not so much outraged over the theft as bemused by the method. Innovators these days are just trying to figure out what part of our private lives they can digitize, from refrigerators that scan their own contents to dog collars that keep tabs on Fido.

We saw recently that Amazon has major intentions in the grocery sector, acquiring Whole Foods and weighing streamlining of both wholesale and retail operations. Now Target has begun testing next-day delivery of digitally ordered goods and is expanding the operation to eight major cities, the closest to the Triangle area being Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

Like Amazon’s Prime Pantry offering, Target lets you fill up a box of household items for a flat fee, but unlike Amazon, Target is not charging an annual membership. There are 15,000 products available through the Target Restock site, allowing users to keep up with frequently used products like health and beauty supplies, although some packaged groceries are included in the list. Who would have thought the online grocery market would take off like this?

Walmart’s response to the moves of its competitors is to go not just the extra mile with its own delivery service but to actually get inside your house. Working with a maker of smart home devices called August, Walmart’s proposed new service, now in testing, would let packages be delivered inside the home, with a delivery service called Deliv bringing the goods.

One of the things August manufactures, you see, is smart locks, and with these, a delivery driver can gain one-time entry into the home using a passcode for that particular order. If the order includes groceries, they will be placed in the refrigerator or freezer as necessary. The customer can observe the delivery through smart cameras in the home and can authorize it on any mobile device.

We’ll see how this goes over when testing begins in the Silicon Valley area this fall, but it’s clear that to take advantage of it, a customer will need a properly equipped house. We’re about to start thinking about our houses in the same way we used to think about buying PCs. “Do I have enough RAM?” becomes “Is my kitchen door armed with a smart doorbell?” Instead of buying the right CPU, we now ask whether our home security video feed has a wide enough view.

I for one plan to opt out not just from inside delivery but grocery delivery to the door because I don’t want to arm my house with yet another cluster of digital gadgets that can be compromised by hackers, and in the days of the Equifax fiasco, is there anything that can’t be hacked?

Moreover, the sense of big companies moving a little too comfortably into my life is beginning to weigh on me. We’ve been hearing a lot about Facebook’s advertising practices, including Russian election ads and potentially anti-Semitic ad-targeting. But the company’s latest tools for advertisers also include customer targeting from the shopping we’ve done in the real world.

I’d just as soon not be dragging Mark Zuckerberg around with me when I amble into my local grocery, and I can avoid this fate by making sure I have opted out of Facebook location tracking in its mobile app. Businesses may love this kind of information, and I don’t mind tracking if it can help me navigate, but piling up data for advertisers is not something I’m getting paid to do.

Welcome to the modern world. Always check for devices, and then ask yourself what kind of tradeoff you’re willing to make for convenience. These days I’ll take a little less of the latter.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at