US malls to track shoppers with their cell phone signals

By on November 23, 2011, 5:30 PM

You might want to leave your cell phone at home this holiday shopping season if you'll be visiting one of two US malls that are implementing tracking technology. The Promenade Temecula in California and Short Pump Town Center in Virginia (both operated by Forest City Commercial Management) plan to test the waters by tracing shoppers' footsteps from Black Friday through New Year's with a Path Intelligence system.

Called "FootPath," the technology is already being used in retailers across Europe and Australia to monitor the traffic flow and purchasing behavior of customers. The technology is fairly straightforward. Discreet receivers are installed around the shopping center and use your cell phone's signal to track your location as you aimlessly drift between snack vendors and electronics shops. Whether that's right or wrong is debatable.

On one hand, you are voluntarily entering private property that is open to the public, so there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in terms of your whereabouts. Going a little deeper, the store is using an over-the-air signal that's essentially in the public domain, and you willingly accept that when you use a wireless communications device. What's more, your image, audio and location are already being recorded with cameras.

Stores have previously used heat maps and even undercover researchers to follow shoppers and document similar information to what's being collected with FootPath -- not that one justifies the other. While it's easy to focus on the negatives (they generally warrant more attention), collecting such data allows stores to improve your shopping experience by displaying products more conveniently or developing a more strategic floor plan.

On the other hand, the project seems deceitful in that it's partially dependent on people not realizing they're being tracked. It's unlikely that the malls will make a concerted effort to notify their customers of the practice. Even if they do, disapproving customers have to disable their phone to "opt out." The establishment might as well say, "let us track you or don't come here," because few people will ditch their phone and stores realize this.

It's also disputed that, unlike security cameras, the stores are tracking you with a signal emitted by your private property -- something most people wouldn't agree to if asked. Privacy advocates also note that while having this technology in one or two malls may seem innocuous, it only paves the road for other businesses to begin tracking you. And then there's the debate about the data's security. What if it falls into the wrong hands?

We've seen countless high profile security breaches this year. Most of those cases involved an external entity gaining unauthorized access to private information, but there are cases when companies themselves violate user trust -- be it intentionally or not. For instance, Google's Street View cars have been caught "accidentally" harvesting data from unsecure Wi-Fi networks. This included users' browsing data, emails and passwords.

The stores only plan to collect anonymous data about your location on their property, but that lends itself to potential abuse, whether through an unscrupulous employee, hackers or a technical malfunction. What if stores begin tagging you with an identifier? Although I'm still conflicted on whether this is "right" or "wrong," it seems I've been able to tally more arguments in the latter column. Would you mind being tracked in retail outfits?

User Comments: 13

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H3llion H3llion, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Il disable my Phone, BOOM! Or better yet, block the Shopping malls?

Mudvayne819 said:

we are about to enter an age where when you enter a shop it greet you buy your name, just like in movies, the problems, is how to regulate that, or implement something really deep that is used around the globe.

Guest said:

tin foil hats now on sale! only $10!!!

why do you care about the system seeing you? they don't track YOU, they track a pattern... people have to realize no one gives a **** about WHO you are..

Guest said:

Malls are full of cameras anyways which can see everything you do, I don't see how this is any different. It just makes it easier for them see patterns and do research.

Guest said:

I don't know .. without sounds it is of not good; should also register sounds otherwise they could loose a important tracking variable: sound of I after some been intake =))

Guest said:

How do you know they dont have personal identifiers? Your comment goes along with those that say "If you dont have something to hide who cares?" Really? It is a violation of your 4th amendment! How would you feel if they were tracking your bedroom activities? Stand up for your rights or lose them forever! I wish I lived close to this mall. I would be standing at the door informing people.

caravel said:

How would you feel if they were tracking your bedroom activities?

I wouldn't care as I have NOTHING TO HIDE... (i.e. no one wants to have sex with me)

jobeard jobeard, TS Ambassador, said:

FootPath tracking; kind of sounds like we're being stalked doesn't it?

With all the hassle we contend with on our PC browser "tracking cookies", virus' and

ads which are tailored to our surfing behavior, it is natural to be suspicious of anything that smacks of tracking.

I think we need to get a grip on some realities of the high tech experience - -

for every benefit we derive from a high tech device, there is an associated cost.

This means what we once thought of as perfect anonymity and privacy has taken a

significant hit. We have multiple locators today;

the tcp/ip address (and the associated MAC code) assigned by our choice of ISP,

that email address we use,

the cell phone number (and more to the point of FootPath tracking) and its IMEI code) and

that GPS service which may be on our mobile device(s).

Consider existing tracking we tolerate already;

* The cell phone IMEI code is broadcast periodically to locate the cell towers which are in range of our current location.

* That GPS service (for iPhone users) records the longitude and latitude where ever we take a picture.

* How about all those roadway cameras that watch you as you drive about town?

For FootPath to work at all, it requires triangulation (at least two or more RDF sensors) and within a shopping mall, the range would be necessarily short. Move to the parking lot and you become "invisible". There's no personal data access, just the fact that the cell phone attempts to locate cell towers is all that is necessary.

Privacy is (or has become) much like physical security; the only way to get it is to bar the doors and windows and never venture outside.

True privacy now requires we abandon all high tech devices and go back to carrier pigeons and horse drawn carriages.

Personally, I'm more sensitive on the iPhone/GPS tracking of my pictures.

The grandkids just don't need the hassle that could invoke!

Burty117 Burty117, TechSpot Chancellor, said:

caravel said:

(i.e. no one wants to have sex with me)

Now that is something I rarely read on a tech website :P

SumthinSacred said:

What scares me about this is what could be done with it in the wrong hands. Malls using that info to try and get more money out of you? I'm okay with. But some other possibilities I'd rather not think of them to be honest.

Lionvibez said:

Very good question what happens, when people start hacking the mall systems??

Because we all know they will have this hooked up to a router somewhere with WEP.

RH00D RH00D said:

caravel said:

How would you feel if they were tracking your bedroom activities?

I wouldn't care as I have NOTHING TO HIDE... (i.e. no one wants to have sex with me)

I do have things to hide. Why? Well, it's not because it's illegal, no, but rather, I don't want everybody and anybody to know about the things that I do because it would probably make me feel uncomfortable. For some people it may be a fear of judgement. For some people it's a lack of privacy that may make them feel "naked" to everybody and I don't know anybody that wants to feel that way.

Do you take a crap with the door wide open? Probably not.

Do you like having people watch you while you sleep? Probably not.

Would you enjoy people staring at you while you stand naked? Probably not.

There is also other reasons for why people may be sensitive about privacy. Someone who had their privacy violated in traumatizing ways as a child may be more particular or sensitive about their privacy as an adult.

Try to think outside the box.

jobeard jobeard, TS Ambassador, said:

[update] plans aborted

Two malls are axing their plans to track shoppers' cell phones, after a U.S. senator raised privacy concerns over the weekend.

see the story for details

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