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Kevin Johnson, Starbucks chief executive officer, speaks at the Starbucks Annual Meeting of Shareholders in Seattle. (GeekWire photo / Taylor Soper)

With all the sensitive news about Facebook and privacy hovering menacingly over the Internet this week, it seems an odd time for Starbucks to begin “forcing” consumers to register so they can connect to WiFi. But that’s indeed what’s happening to coffee drinkers around the country. Many are sipping coffee and finding an unexpected “email and zip code required for access” login screen when they sit down to connect. Some Internet users aren’t happy with the change.

Let’s get this out of the way. Plenty of other places ask for an email address — and some even ask for money — when you connect to WiFi. So asking for an email in exchange for free Internet isn’t out of line. On the surface, it can be a pretty fair trade-off.

“Seems annoying, but reasonable,” agrees consumer lawyer and privacy expert Joel Winston, noting that “people will give up just about anything for free WiFi,” and pointing to a story about users agreeing to clean toilets for Internet access.

What makes Starbucks’ change more meaningful, and potentially problematic, is the size of the company and the amount of data it will now be collecting. About 75 million customers visit its stores every month. Some 15 million are members of the Starbucks Rewards program, and the new strings attached to free WiFi are driven by Starbucks’ desire to have a digital relationship with its remaining 60 million customers.

That’s a lot of data. As Starbucks begins to mine that data, will it end up creating the kind of personal profiles or customer “buckets” that Facebook, credit bureaus, and firms like Cambridge Analytica have fashioned? That’s probably inevitable. Will it sell that information? It will certainly share the data with third parties. Can consumers control what is collected and shared? Yes, and no, is the answer.

Starbucks privacy policy lists all the terms and conditions governing this data collection, including some specifics about how it might be shared. There’s also a “How to Manage Your Account Information” section which directs people to the firm’s site:

“Upon request we will provide you with information about whether we hold any of your personal information,” Starbucks says. “You may access, correct, or remove your personal information by visiting Starbucks.com/Account.”

My best efforts at finding where I could access or remove my personal information were foiled. I found nothing in all the places you’d expect — settings, profile, and so on. I’ve asked Starbucks to help me find it, and I’ll update this story when I hear back.

In exchange for playing along with the sign-up, Starbucks says it will recognize your computer in the future and it’ll be easier for you to connect going forward.

The business strategy behind the move makes sense. Executive Scott Maw explained it recently at a banking conference:

“There are millions of customers that are 91-plus-day active, and we’re reactivating those customers,” he said. “We’ve been marketing to them for a while now and having some success in converting them, but we’re going to go far deeper. The offers will be richer, because we know they pay off, and we’re going to try to get that previously active base reactivated. And the third opportunity – and this is something that we’re just investigating, we’ll see if we can make it work – is what we call WiFi sign-up.”

He went on,”if you want to use WiFi in Starbucks, we’re going to make it easy for you. Enter your e-mail once, every time you walk into the store, it automatically connects to WiFi, and you don’t have to accept the terms and conditions again. That allows you to have the convenience of connection. It allows us to have the ability to have those e-mail addresses. And so, across those ideas and others that we’re considering, we’ve said we’ll have several million non-Starbucks Rewards digital relationships by the end of this year.”

As mentioned, some folks don’t like this change:

Again, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Starbucks to offer consumers a bargain like, “Let us send you one email a week, and we’ll give you free WiFi.” Consumers cannot know, however, how else this data might be used in the future, and so they aren’t necessarily in a position to make a fair bargain. I will say that because there really is pretty healthy competition in the coffee shop market (unlike, say, the Facebook market), this bothers me less. As this Tweeter points out, consumers do have options:

Meanwhile, users can use throwaway accounts to “register” with Starbucks (and should. Everyone should have a ‘spam’ account). At the moment, it doesn’t appear Starbucks authenticates the email addresses in any way. There’s no double-opt-in requirement or whatnot. Of course, the firm will still have the ability to track your hardware via a cookie, but then, that’s always been true.

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