Daily Dose of iQ: Malls Track Shoppers' Phones on Black Friday

Nov 23, 2011 — Allan Pulga

It would make perfect sense for retailers to track mall shoppers' phones to determine their paths from store to store. But does the practice violate consumers' privacy rights?

No, because personal data is not being tracked, says Forest City Commercial Management, a U.S. mall management company.

"We won't be looking at singular shoppers," said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City, in CNNMoneyTech (Nov. 22). "The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to."

Forest City is using FootPath Technology, which uses antennas throughout the mall to capture each person's phone I.D. number (similar to a computer's IP address) and track their movement within the mall, wrote CNNMoneyTech's Annalyn Censky.

"The system can't take photos or collect data on what shoppers have purchased," Censky wrote. "And it doesn't collect any personal details associated with the ID, like the user's name or phone number. That information is fiercely protected by mobile carriers, and often can be legally obtained only through a court order."

But what if companies wanted to track how people are using their phones?

According to researcher and coder Trevor Eckhart, a company called Carrier IQ can track not only location, but also when and how a call is dropped, what input method a customer is using, and even what the customer is inputting.

"The depth of the allegations are startling," writes Dan Rowinski of ReadWriteWeb.com. "Does CIQ really have the ability to key log everything that a user types? The fight has now gone legal with CIQ sending Eckhart a cease-and-desist letter and removal of his research while the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has come to his aid."

I sat down with a couple of my colleagues to get their reactions to this story.

How does this “controversy” make you feel, as a UX designer? And as a consumer?

Nancy Yu Wen Sun (iQmetrix Interaction Architect):
"As a user experience designer, I would love to understand the pattern of my audience and find out ways to improve their daily lives, either virtually or physically. However, as a smartphone user, I don't want share every single detail of my life. There is a fine line between sharing information that will benefit me and sharing information to the point that I feel like I'm on The Truman Show. For good or bad, companies have to be transparent about what they are collecting.

What kind of data are we talking about here?

Garett Rogers (iQmetrix Lead UX Designer):
"Carriers can, and do, collect a lot of information -- the most powerful of which is physical location. This information is extremely powerful (and valuable), as they are able to slice and dice it in many ways.

"It can be used to determine things like probability of someone being at a certain location at any given time, based on historical data. It can also be used to determine your 'real' social network: who are you hanging out with outside of work hours."

How does it relate to Black Friday retail traffic?

Garett Rogers:
"Consumers likely understand that their carrier can track down their phone if necessary -- but what they don't understand is that they are probably using your location (at least in aggregate form) for real-time analysis, 24/7. 

"Consumers probably also don't understand how much information can be learned by simple location data. Where do you live, work, and play? Who do you hang out with and when? What stores did you visit on Black Friday? When did you do something unusual (go somewhere you've never been before) and where was it? How fast do you drive on average while on the highway? Based on the last 3 months, what is the probability you will eat at McDonald's tonight? The list goes on and on."

Take-home message:

Garett Rogers:
"As long as this information is being stored and analyzed in anonymous fashion, there shouldn't be any legitimate privacy concerns. But since there is little to no transparency as far as what is actually captured, and how it's used, the verdict is still out on whether privacy is being respected."

Topics: Privacy, Wireless Trends, Mobile Industry, Customer Experience

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