A patent purchased by Amazon may pose potential privacy issues. Named, “Physical Store Online Shopping Control,” this technology has the capability to track shoppers within their brick-and-mortar stores.
If shoppers connect through the store's wifi networks, this new system can track their online activity and interfere with it. This prevents shoppers from what has been labeled as "mobile window shopping," where customers use their smartphones to compare product prices as they walk around the store. The system is also able to track and monitor the shopper's network and detect their location within the establishment.
— CNET (@CNET) June 16, 2017
If a shopper decides to search online for similar products, an algorithm would detect the traffic and attempt to override the results. One of the following could be executed: it could block access to a competitor's websites, which prevents customers from viewing similar products; redirect customers back to Amazon's own website or other Amazon-approved websites; send a notification to a salesperson to approach the customer; or it could send customers’ smartphones a text message or other notifications designed to entice them back.
This new patent becomes even more significant when you consider that Amazon has been expanding its physical presence. With over half a dozen brick-and-mortar bookstores and their recent purchase of supermarket chain Whole Foods, the company will eventually end up controlling over 470 retail establishments. This gives Amazon enormous incentive in ensuring that their customers won’t be looking elsewhere while inside their stores.
https://t.co/BpjdKV7gpa if only this patent was owned by ANYONE ELSE
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) June 16, 2017
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said that regulators should be on the lookout for potentially anti-competitive behavior. "Amazon has created a largely stealth Big Data digital apparatus that has not gotten the scrutiny it requires,” he added.
Amazon has not yet responded on whether they will implement this initiative. Holding a patent does not necessarily mean the company will use it. Some file for patents to reserve the right to use it later on, while others do so to prevent competitors from using it.
However, if such a technology is implemented, companies will be able to direct and manipulate consumers’ purchasing behaviors, which causes privacy issues for the customers. The online retail giant has shown support for a free and open internet when they signed on for a July 12 protest against the FCC's initiative to roll back rules regarding net neutrality.
Product—and price—comparison was one of the main selling points for Amazon when it first launched in 1994. Mobile window shopping enables consumers to “get a feel” of physical products before purchasing them online. This new technology suggests that “the company's new patent is aimed to protect it from just such behavior as it enters the storefront arena.”
For now, it seems like one way to bypass this system is for consumers to use their own cellular data when browsing within Amazon-owned shops. According to Gizmodo, however, " that’s a scenario that the average consumer would revolt against, for now. But it’s an example of how tricky a truly dominant corporation could be if it runs rampant."