Malls Track Holiday Shoppers Who Don’t Opt Out

Consumer protection, Privacy, Technology

He sees you when you’re sleeping! He knows when you’re awake! You may be secretly shopping for surprises for your loved ones this season, but some retailers are tracking and recording your every move. U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer revealed in July that major national retailers are increasingly testing and routinely using monitoring software to track every move shoppers make while in their stores, and then often times save that data — without the knowledge of these shoppers. The technology allows shoppers to be tracked moment by moment via their cell phone signals, allowing a retailer to learn what part of the store they spent time in and how much time they spend shopping. Stores are also gathering information about what shoppers do on their smartphones while shopping. Data firms and marketing companies then use this information to advertise better, obviously, but the practice understandably makes us all a bit apprehensive.

Not-So-Secret Shopping

It’s difficult to know what can be done to avoid being tracked completely.  Even if you disable cookies on your phone and pay cash instead of using a credit card, your phone can still be tracked. The information that data collection agencies sell to retailers can help your shopping experience in the long run. Tracking the types of items you buy can affect the types of coupons a retailer sends to your phone, for instance. A new product called Shopperception makes use of similar technology found in the Xbox Kinect’s camera, and it’s designed to track people in a store along with their behavior. Pick a product up off the shelf and then put it back? That could theoretically cue a nearby digital sign which can offer digital coupons or recommend an alternative product. Creepy?

Privacy Protection for Shoppers

Shumer and the Future of Privacy Forum have released a new Code of Conduct agreed to by location technology companies. Hopefully this will give consumers some privacy options. Eight of the 10 major cell phone tracking companies have agreed to the code of conduct. They have agreed to notify shoppers when they’re being tracked, and to give them a chance to opt out before being tracked. Specifically, the code requires stores to post conspicuous signs when using the tracking technology. Companies are required to get opt-in consent when personal information is collected, or when a consumer will be contacted; the code calls for opt-out consent where the information collected is not personal. This means it’s okay to simply monitor MAC addresses without alerting shoppers; monitoring MAC addresses means simply keeping log of each time a wi-fi enabled device connects to another device. Some stores simply want to know how many of their customers use certain kinds of smartphones, rather than gathering more personal information. Data collected can’t be used to adversely affect a shopper’s employment, health care, or insurance. Lawmakers seem to be trying to comfort queasy consumers, but the fact remains that our every move being watched is inevitable.