Starbucks picked an odd time to force Wi-Fi customers to cough up personal data

The new Starbucks Wi-Fi speed bump / email requirement.

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 Wi-Fi. 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 Wi-Fi. 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. According to, which I think was the first to write about the change, about 75 million customers visit its stores every month. Some 15 million are members of Starbucks Rewards program, and “asking for an email address is driven in large part by the company’s desire to have a digital relationship with the 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. You may access, correct, or remove your personal information by visiting”

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 get back to you when they the firm does.

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

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

“We’re reactivating. … there are millions of customers that are 91-plus-day active, and we’re reactivating those customers. 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 Wi-Fi sign-up.

“So, if you want to use Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi, 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. And if you think about that 60 million, I would expect that number to continue to grow at a relatively rapid clip over the next handful of years.”

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 Wi-Fi.” 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.


If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’d like to support what I do. That’s easy. Buy something from my NEW LIBRARY AND E-COMMERCE PAGE, click on an advertisement, or just share the story.

Marriott Hotels

About Bob Sullivan 1443 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.


  1. There’s also a known problem with re-login loops that prevent internet access to your laptop if you’ve logged in more than one device and no way as yet to reverse it. So here I am traveling and can no longer get very much needed internet for my laptop because google fiber introduced a broken login system that despite repeated calls to google fiber and Starbucks customer service is not getting fixed… They just keep saying we’re working on it and it stays broken and “there’s nothing we can do at this time.” Stupid Jerks!!!

  2. Well people need to understand about nothing ever being really FREE. Places collect info to sell as a way to pay for that FREE INTERNET that everyone feels entitled to. Never mind the monthly cost of Bandwidth and Hardware that is required to provide this. They just feel entitled to it because they got it free for awhile. Who really cares about the business itself, just give me the freebies.

    • That’s probably why they got rid of the comfy leather chairs a few years ago at my nearby location. Too many sqatters and not enough customers. Personally, I wouldn’t use their WiFi without buying a drink. Of course, if I use a restroom at a convenience store, I try to buy something so I’m not freeloading 🙂

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Starbucks requires email for Wi-Fi now. Can users remove their info? Unclear —

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.