Sears and Kmart customers who sign up for a new marketing program may be giving up more private information than they'd bargained for, a prominent anti-spyware researcher claims.
According to Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ben Edelman, Sears Holdings' My SHC Community program falls short of U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) standards by failing to notify users exactly what happens when they download the company's marketing software.
And given the invasive nature of the product, Sears has an obligation to make its behavior clearer to users. "The software is not something you'd want on your computer or the computer of anyone you care about," Edelman said in an interview. "It tracks every site you go to, every search you make, every product you buy, and every product you look at but don't buy. It's just spooky."
Edelman has written up an analysis of Sears's software, set to be made public on Tuesday.
Problems with the retailer's My SHC Community program were first brought to light in late December, when CA senior engineer Benjamin Googins, wrote a blog entry criticizing the software, which was written by VoiceFive, a subsidiary of Internet measurement firm ComScore.
Sears launched the My SHC Community in March, intending it to be a vehicle for customers who want a voice in the company's direction. "It's still kind of in its early days," said Rob Harles, vice president of MY SHC Community, in an interview conducted prior to Edelman's post. "It's mainly used right now for research, but what we want to do is open it up so it's creating dialogue with our customers."
Sears Holdings, the owner of the Sears Roebuck and Kmart department stores is the third-largest retailer in the U.S.
Sears offers members $10 and a chance to win one of several sweepstakes as an extra incentive to join the program.
But in return, a small percentage of members must install extremely invasive software.
According to Googins, the product monitors not only all of the user's Web traffic, but also keeps track of secure sessions like visits to bank sites, sniffs through e-mail headers, and then sends that information to a ComScore.
While Googins called the software "a significant threat to privacy," Harles doesn't see it that way. First off, he said that members can join the community with or without the tracking software and that less than 10 percent of the members have signed up for the tracking program.
And those who get the tracking software installed have all personally identifying information scrubbed by ComScore and are informed of exactly what's going on, he added.
Harles sent Googlins a detailed rebuttal to his claims, which the CA researcher has published on his blog.
Edelman said Monday the Sears executive is simply wrong. "The comments from ... Rob Harles are remarkable," he said. "Exactly contrary to actual facts as best I can tell."