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Walmart's back-to-school app asks users to trade information for convenience

Though the platform — which provides access to school supply lists — promises convenience, privacy experts say students and parents should be skeptical.

Mark Satter
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Mark Satter Editorial Intern
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(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

This article has been updated to include a response from TeacherLists.

As parents, teachers and retailers prepare for the back-to-school shopping frenzy, Walmart has announced a new set of digital tools to make the experience less chaotic — and it's raising the alarm bells of some privacy experts.

The discount retail giant said in a statement Wednesday that it is expanding the capabilities of its mobile app to allow users, namely parents, to search for their child’s specific school supply list and even find out exactly where the supplies are located in the store.

It follows a related move from last year, when Walmart integrated TeacherLists, a widely used third-party school supply list aggregation tool, into its mobile app called School Supplies List to help families shop for school supplies online. Now, those capabilities are available on the Walmart app as well. By entering the student's ZIP code and selecting their school and teacher, parents will see a supply list populate in front of them.

But privacy experts worry that parents, students and teachers are not aware of the implications of using platforms like TeacherLists, which gain access to users’ personal information, like school district, ZIP code and other data.

“It looks like TeacherLists makes their money by gathering marketing data from their users,” said Doug Levin, a K-12 privacy expert and president of education consultancy group EdTech Strategies LLC. “If that data can be combined with other sources, it’s a rich trove of information for marketers to reach students and parents.”

Users may not realize that they essentially are paying for the service with their privacy, Levin said. “A quick glance at TeacherLists’ privacy policy indicates that they do sell user data,” Levin said, “and that’s a honeypot of information — it’s valuable.”

According to TeacherLists’ privacy policy, users are required to enter their personal contact information, including their name, email address and demographic information. That information becomes the property of TeacherLists’ parent company, School Family Media.

The president of School Family Media, John Driscoll, disputed Levin's interpretation of how TeacherLists uses data.

"Retail partners purchase a license for our supply list data NOT user data," Driscoll said in an email. "Supply list data is school name and address, name of list “(i.e. Mrs Walsh’s First grade list or even just 5th grade list, and then the specific items on the list (crayons, markers, composition notebooks etc). They use the list data to facilitate shopping for parents. That supply list data is delivered via a one way API. As a result TeacherLists has no access to any user data from retail partners."

Though TeacherLists’ data practices are not unique, they highlight the lack of informed consent that has become ubiquitous as people trade their information for the ability to use free online services, Levin said.

“Do parents really understand the business model and privacy implications of services like this?” asked Levin. “I don’t think so.”

-In this Story-

Education IT News, Apps, Walmart, TeachersLists, School Family Media, privacy, privacy policy

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