Are You Being Spied On While You Shop?

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If you hit the mall on Black Friday, you could be under observation. Don’t look behind you, though; a signal emitted by your cell phone could be sending information to receivers that log your path from store to store. A pair of shopping centers are experimenting with technology that provides real-time tracking of customers via their cell phones. Think that’s creepy or just want to opt out of being cyber-watched? You’ll have to turn off your phone.“It opens up a Pandora’s box of possible privacy infringements,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. While the company that makes the technology says it’s entirely anonymous, according to a CNN/Money article, Grant isn’t convinced that the technology is risk-free.

“OK, so they don’t know who you are, but they know the specific device and where that device has circulated through an area,” points out Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester Research. “That’s one level of concern.” She adds that the way the malls went about this — by opting customers in automatically and putting the onus on them to opt out by shutting off their phones — is unlikely to be well-received by shoppers. “If people are walking into the mall, it should be their prerogative to use the phone without having the concern that their every movement is being monitored,” she says.

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The CFA’s Grant adds that the prospect of who else could lay claim to location data on a particular phone — say, police, divorce lawyers or employers — is worrisome. “That probably wasn’t the intent of the people who used this new technology and yet, it’s one of the potential concerns,” she says. “It raises the specter of possible use of the information in ways that certainly consumers wouldn’t be able to anticipate.

Forrester’s Mulpuru says there are less heavy-handed ways stores or malls can go about finding out where customers congregate, where and how long they linger, and other data marketers want. Several technology companies make location-based incentive programs in which shoppers opt in and receive discounts or special offers when they’re in the vicinity of a particular store. The trade-off is that technology company (and the store they’re working for) gets details on the movement of that customer.

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Mulpuru says retailers don’t want to run the risk of alienating potential customers in a very competitive economy, so it’s more likely that opt-in programs offering rewards will be stores’ best shot at getting the kind of data on customer movement they’re after. “My suspicion is that’s where it’s going to have to evolve to,” she says.