Sears responds to online privacy concerns

Sears Holdings has taken part of its Web site offline following revelations that the site was making customers’ purchasing histories publicly available.

Sears disabled the site’s “Find your products” section on Friday following criticism from privacy advocates, who said that fraudsters could use information provided by the site to scam Sears customers.

“We take our customers’ privacy concerns very seriously. As a result, we have turned off the ability to view a customer’s purchase history on Manage My Home until we can implement a validation process that will restrict access by unauthorized third parties,” said Sears spokeswoman Kimberly Freely in an e-mail.

“We appreciate the efforts of those who brought the issue to our attention,” she added. Customers with concerns can contact Sears directly at 1-800-803-6775.

The feature was supposed to be used by customers who wanted “easy access to useful information about products they have purchased,” she added.

Manage My Home is a community portal where Sears shoppers can download product manuals, find product tips and get home renovation ideas. However, “Find your products” would return purchase information history on any Sears customer, provided the search included the name, phone number and address of the person.

This was a violation of Sears’ own online privacy policy, which does not allow the company to share users’ purchase history with the general public, according to Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who blogged about the issue on Friday.

“It seems like pulling the feature is the right decision at this point,” Edelman said in an interview on Friday. But he warned it was “not immediately obvious” how Sears could bring it back without running into further privacy problems.

Sears, the third-largest retailer in the U.S., has also been in hot water for its My SHC Community portal, which downloads invasive ComScore Web tracking software to some users.

Sears has defended its use of the tracking software, pointing out that users are notified of the software’s features before they download it, but researchers such as Edelman have said that the company doesn’t do a good enough job of telling users what the software actually does.

According to Edelman, the privacy slip-ups may stem from logistical challenges posed by Sears’ 2005 merger with Kmart. “There’s a huge transition there,” he said. “Getting that ship pointed in the right direction could deeply challenge IT. There are a whole lot of ways to do it wrong. ”

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