January 17, 2013, 12:51 PM —
There’s a common argument against online tracking that goes something like this: When you shop at your local mall, nobody is following you around recording the name of every store you enter and what you did there. When you shop on the Web, there are dozens of trackers recording your activities on every site you visit. So why can’t shopping online be more like shopping at the mall?
Well, it soon may be, but not in a way most privacy advocates would endorse. Retail stores will soon be able to follow you around the store – or even outside the store if you just walk by without entering – using the WiFi antenna built into your smartphone.
How would they do it? Pretty simple really. When you come within range of a properly configured WiFi access point, it can record the wireless MAC address of your phone – a unique 12-digit number. Every time you pass by, that AP can log that number. If you enter that store or café every day, it will soon have a detailed record of when you (or at least your phone) entered and departed.
Think of it as Google Analytics for people; instead of measuring Web traffic, they’re measuring foot traffic. Why would stores want to do this? More on that in a minute.
I recently spoke with John Madison, VP of technical marketing for Fortinet, which builds network security appliances for major enterprises. At this week’s National Federation of Retailers conference, Fortinet unveiled a new line of WiFi security products for store owners that provide firewall, anti-malware, and intrusion protection services for their networks.
But these devices also contain work with software from a company called Euclid Analytics that allows stores to collect data on actual and potential customers. (Fortinet is hardly alone in this; Aerohive, Aruba, and Xirrus also build routers that can take advantage of Euclid Analytics software.)