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.

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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.

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