Today, as millions of Americans flock to the malls in pursuit of Black Friday deals, some of those malls will be tracking customers by their cellphone signals.
The technology comes from U.K.-based Path Intelligence, who have installed their FootPath system in shopping centers across Europe and Australia.
It works like this: A network of monitoring units are set up across a mall to track shoppers’ cellphone signals, locating them within a couple of meters. The data is then fed to a central processing center. Afterwards, management can gain insight into their customers’ shopping habits, letting them know which stores complement each other or which pathways have the most foot traffic so they can allocate their maintenance crews and ad posters accordingly.
Great for the malls? Sure. Great for consumer privacy? That’s where it gets complicated.
Path Intelligence’s website states that it does not “intercept any personal information,” including phone numbers, and that it “does not collect or store information about customers that allows for the identification of individuals.”
The worry is that somehow, somebody outside of Path Intelligence might have access to that information, say an intrepid hacker–not to mention, anonymity aside, that there’s something plain creepy about having a faceless company track your every movement.
CNN reports that the two shopping centers will be trying out the FootPath system starting on Black Friday: Promenade Temecula in Temecula, CA and the Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, VA. Both will reportedly post signs telling customers that their phones will be tracked.
There is one way to opt-out of the system: Turn off your phone. Of course, for many people, walking around without a working cellphone is like walking around naked. Faced with two unattractive options—being tracked electronically or not having access to a cellphone—it’ll be interesting to see if anyone avoids the two shopping centers altogether.
While FootPath might initially seem invasive, don’t forget that shoppers share all kinds of information when making purchases online, a fact Path Intelligence CEO Sharon Biggar points out to CNN. It’s true–if you’ve ever bought anything (or, quite frankly, done anything at all) online, marketers already have a trove of information about you.
Is it hypocritical for people who let online retailers track them with cookies to be upset when brick-and-mortar retailers track them via cellphone?
I don’t think so. Plenty of people share their information with Facebook, but many of them freaked out when the short-lived Facebook Places allowed their location to be tagged. I have plenty of friends who let Gmail scan their private emails to target them with ads, but barely any of them let Google Latitude broadcast their exact location to others.
The point is, people kind of freak out when you start tracking their physical location. Information online is abstract; the exact spot where you are standing right now is not. What remains to be seen is whether or not the fear of being tracked will win out over the desire to score good deals.