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Retailers tracking customers via Wi-Fi suggests that privacy really is dead

Taylor Armerding | Nov. 25, 2013
"Privacy is dead -- get over it," has been a mantra of private investigators for years.

"Privacy is dead -- get over it," has been a mantra of private investigators for years.

But continuing revelations about how many different ways personal privacy is still disappearing are still enough to unnerve people. It is not just about the trail everybody leaves from the websites they visit, or from security cameras in public places. It is also about smart cars. It is about the cellular towers that serve their smartphones. And it is now also about their friendly brick-and-mortar retailer.

One example of many is clothing retailer Nordstrom, which began tracking shoppers in its stores about a year ago through the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones.

At least the company was somewhat transparent about it -- it posted a sign telling customers what it was doing. But that generated enough complaints for it to end the program in May.

Of course, Nordstrom is not the only retailer looking to track shoppers in its physical stores. And at one level, they and their defenders argue that this is not a big deal -- that they aren't doing anything more intrusive than those in the online world who track the activities of shoppers and then try to pitch them ads that will be more "relevant." They're just catching up.

They could argue that it is less intrusive than plenty of other data collection, from social networking sites like Facebook to government, in the form of the National Security Agency (NSA). Stillman Bradish, co-founder of The Wireless Registry, a D.C.-based start-up that is reportedly designing ways for consumers to opt out of the tracking, told the Washington Post that, in general, Wi-Fi tracking doesn't collect PII (Personally Identifiable Information).

And, as plenty of privacy experts have pointed out, the "new normal" today is for people to spill every detail of their lives online, including where they shopped and what they bought.

Veteran private investigator Steven Rambam has been telling audiences for years that the logical result of all that voluntary sharing is that, "Privacy is dead, and you guys murdered it."

At one point in a presentation to The Next HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) conference three years ago, Rambam asked how many had Facebook pages. Every hand went up. Then he asked those who had read Facebook's Terms of Service to keep their hands up. Every hand went down.

He was even more critical of users of social networks like Swipely, designed for friends to share their purchase history. "Why would you put your shopping history on (things like that)?" he said. "You deserve every bit of screwing that you get."

Still, consumers have a sense -- logical or not -- that they have some control over the voluntary sharing they do, while they have little or none over a retailer tracking their movements in a store.

 

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