When Black Friday becomes Black Spyday

Shopping malls in Southern California and Virginia will be tracking customers' cell phones this holiday season -- without asking permission. This needs to stop. UPDATE: It has stopped -- for now, at least.

In preparation for the big holiday shopping season, most malls are stocking their shelves. But some are stalking their customers.

According to a report by CNN Money, malls in Virginia and Southern California are planning to track the cell phones of their customers starting on Black Friday. The Promenade in Temecula and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond have implemented a system called Footpath Technology that can identify the unique ID of every cell phone and trace each handset’s movements throughout the mall. They’re turning it on today and planning to keep it running through the entire holiday shopping period.

Can you say ‘creepy’? I knew that you could.

The data collected is anonymized; mall operators won’t have any other information about shoppers’ phones besides the ID, so they’ll be like blips on a radar screen. They won’t know your name or what you bought. They’ll just know what stores your phone visited and in what order.

Per CNN:

The management company of both malls, Forest City Commercial Management, says personal data is not being tracked.

"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.”

Forget migrating birds. Think Angry Birds. If you shop at one of these malls, your movements will be tracked. Don’t like it? Per the report: “Customers can opt out by turning off their phones.”

In other words: If you don’t want these creeps following you, you must turn off the device you probably spend hundreds of dollars a month to use, in a place where you’re most likely to need it, all so someone else can conduct market research – using your shopping habits, without obtaining your permission, for free.

The only notice that shoppers will have are small placards placed in the malls that read “We are conducting an anonymous mobile phone survey to help us enhance your shopping experience.”

I have a lot of problems with this, and it’s not because I’m worried that somebody might know I visited Starbucks after I left Sam Goody’s Record Store and before I hit Barnes and Noble.

First, it’s not a “survey.” A survey is voluntary. A survey is when somebody stops you and says “Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” A survey is not someone forcing you answer questions without asking, or following you around and writing down what you do and where you do it. That is called spying.

Second: If you’re tracking peoples’ cell phones, you need to say that.

Third: How exactly is this going to “enhance” my shopping experience? I can see how it might enhance the malls’ marketing or data research efforts. I can’t see what’s in it for me.

Fourth: You want to track me through your malls? I might not mind so much if you asked permission first. Better yet, as the man says, Show Me the Money. Give me an incentive for allowing you to use my data. Give me a free latte or a discount coupon or enter me into a drawing to win something worthwhile.

This really ticks me off, in case that isn’t already obvious. It’s not so much that this scheme represents potential harm to consumers (though there are data mining scenarios where it could), it’s about the principle of the thing. It’s MY data, not yours. You can’t have it for free.

Left alone, this kind of thing will snowball. If people don’t complain about it now, cell tracking will become standard practice for retailers and others that operate public spaces. Once people get comfortable with malls tracking their movements, the same companies will start to track purchases – especially if NFC devices that let you pay via phone begin to take off – and gather other personal information. You’ll have a little homing device in your pocket, one that you pay for but they get the benefit of. And that’s simply not right.

If you feel the same way I do about this, my advice is vote with your feet and shop somewhere else. Don’t do business with any mall operated by Forest City Commercial Management, or any other company that implements this type of involuntary tracking. Write to the company and let them know how you feel about it. Call them and complain.

They want to conduct a mobile survey? Give them some data they can truly put to use.

UPDATE: Following a consumer outcry and a letter from New York Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), Forest City suspended its plans to continue tracking consumers on foot, per the Wall Street Journal. At least, until they can come up with tracking method that is voluntary (i.e., opt in, not opt out). A small victory, but I'll take it.

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