Amazon and Whole Foods: Can I Have Some Data with that Kale?

4 min read

It looks like Amazon is buying Whole Foods

Let's take a step back and look at the data involved here. We will start by looking at a person who only uses Amazon to shop online, buys food from Whole Foods, and reads using the Kindle app.

For anyone who has ever bought something, Amazon has our home address, and possibly related shipping addresses (ie, ifyou have ever bought something as a gift and had it shipped directly to the recipient). Amazon potentially has one or more credit cards stored for us. Amazon has our purchasing history, and our browsing history. If we ever responded to an ad online for an Amazon product, Amazon has that referrer history, and can infer and expand their profile on us based on the sites that refer us to Amazon.

And, of course, Amazon collects information about all the different devices you use to access Amazon services - so Amazon has a precise record of all the hardware and software you use when you shop, potentially going back to when you first started shopping online. If you can't remember the phone you used in 2007, Amazon could probably tell you.

Moving on to Whole Foods, every time someone uses a credit card in the store, Whole Foods gets the person's name, their credit card number, their geographic location (the store), the time they were there, and the list of items they have purchased. Cross referencing this information with data collected by Amazon, the credit card number or name and zip code could be sufficient to connect these data sets with close to 100% certainty.

For people who use the Whole Foods App, the list of data collected by Whole Foods expands dramatically. The application collects geographic location, device information (ie, the brand of phone or tablet, some form of device ID, the IP addresses it uses, etc), presumably an email address, and the ability to read and access wireless and bluetooth connections. I'm not sure if Whole Foods does tracking via bluetooth beacons, but the app permissions for the android app leave that open as a possibility. If the Whole Foods app does ship with bluetooth tracking enabled, anyone with the app installed and running can be tracked via bluetooth beacons from just about anywhere. Potentially, if tracking was set up between any of Amazon's home devices (the Echo, etc) and the Whole Foods app that Amazon can now access, that would be a very effective way to map in-person social connections and online/offline activity.

If a person shops online at Amazon, buys (expensive) food at Whole Foods, and reads using the Kindle app, then we are also sharing our reading history, patterns, reading speed, and book buying history with Amazon. This data can also be used to infer interests (a person reads one type of book over another, and reads this type of book faster than another), habits (a person generally reads in the morning, and for a certain amount of time), and other personal patterns. When reading habits are cross-referenced against other personal habits (like the food we buy or the items we shop for) it creates a more complete profile of an individual. 

It doesn't take much of a leap to see how a list of the food we buy, the items we shop for, the information we read, and where and when we do each of these actions would be of interest in things like health care. 

And, of course, Amazon has been moving into health care. And, given that we are seeing more experiments using things like sentiment analysis and wearable tech as a means to adjust insurance rates, scenarios that include shopping lists in insurance calculations aren't a stretch.

It's also worth noting that the depth of the Whole Foods data set will be a boon for companies like Amazon that look at differential pricing. Amazon will now be in a great position to identify people willing to pay more for everyday items.

So, have fun shopping at Whole Foods. That organic, free range, hormone free chicken you will be eating tonight will be pecking in your data trail for a while.