Attention shoppers: Retailers can now track you across the mall

Your favorite big box retailer or discount warehouse will soon be able to track your movements via your smartphone. Meet the next big thing in analytics: You.

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Madison says Fortinet has a working proof of concept of this in its labs, but has yet to see the technology deployed in an actual retail environment. One of the reasons is privacy: Retailers have not yet worked out how to obtain permission from customers to track them, let alone people who are merely passing by. Of course, that’s assuming retailers will bother to do that; there is no law compelling them to.

Other barriers are more technical. Getting down to tracking customers inside the store requires multiple APs and some tricky triangulation. But it can be done, Madison says.

What’s the big deal? You may not mind the fact that stores know when you enter and leave, how long you stayed, and whether you made a purchase. And it is true that you already give up a fair amount of privacy when shopping in public. For example, most stores also record your face via CCTV security cameras. But identifying you via facial recognition is far more time consuming, expensive, and error prone than simply matching MAC addresses.

My hunch is that the first deployments of this will be to track employees, where privacy matters are much easier to deal with – a couple of lines in the employee handbook and you’re done. So if Johnny from sporting goods is spending too much time flirting with Sally in lingerie, his manager can show him the numbers before he shows him the door.

But if you do mind that stores can follow you around, there isn’t much you can do about it. You can of course turn off your phone’s WiFi when in public. I don’t know about you, but the only time I remember to do that is when I get a low battery warning. You can always pay cash (at least, until that practice becomes a quaint remnant of our pre-digital past). You can opt out as noted above, but you’ll need to do it for every mobile device you own and with every analytics company out there. (Had you heard of Euclid Analytics before you read this? I hadn’t. Are there others? Beats me.) In that way it’s much like opting out of Web tracking – an onerous chore where the burden is entirely on the person being tracked.

So the question for today is: Who’s minding the store when the store is minding you?

See also Part II: If you shop til you drop, will they track when you get back?

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