US malls to track shoppers with their cell phone signals

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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?

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