Malls Planning to Track Smartphones During Black Friday?

    November 23, 2011

Location data, and the privacy issues related to the subject are a touchy subject, especially among those who value their privacy. With that in mind, would you go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving if you knew the store(s) you visited were tracking your smartphone after you left? Furthermore, if this kind of tracking did go on, is this not grounds for some kind of violation of privacy legal statutes?

Well, if two malls in the U.S. have their way, they will track potential customers and their movements around the mall via mobile phone location data. Apparently, we’re one step closer to the kind of personal advertising as seen in the movie, Minority Report:

According to a report appearing in CNNMoney:

Starting on Black Friday and running through New Year’s Day, two U.S. malls — Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. — will track guests’ movements by monitoring the signals from their cell phones.

The report indicates the data is anonymous, but these malls will be able to track users, or their devices, anyway, from store to store.

Is this a good thing? Should retail outlets be able to monitor the movements of people based on their smartphone-generated location data? Or should something like this have to have legal approval beforehand? Apparently, there are goals associated with the tracking, and, of course, they are marketing related:

The goal is for stores to answer questions like: How many Nordstrom shoppers also stop at Starbucks? How long do most customers linger in Victoria’s Secret? Are there unpopular spots in the mall that aren’t being visited?

While both malls say personal data is not being tracked, how hard is it to match a phone signal up with its user? For instance, “we have a potential shopper who just left the store next to ours. Let’s put our best foot forward at the storefront and try to attract those who are passing by.” Apparently, however, that is not the intention of this tracking project:

“We won’t be looking at singular shoppers,” said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City. “The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to.”

CNN also documents the tracking service being used by the malls in question:

The tracking system, called FootPath Technology, works through a series of antennas positioned throughout the shopping center that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone (similar to a computer’s IP address), and tracks its movement throughout the stores.

Consumers who don’t want to be followed have one method of opting out of the tracking service: turn their phone off.

This leads to a couple of questions: Would you shop at a mall that tracked users based on mobile data? Do these tracking services violate privacy, even if no personal data is being collected? Shouldn’t there be another way besides powering down your device to opt out of this tracking service?

Let us know what you think.