Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Business

Stores can see where you go by tracking your phone (w/video)

RECOMMENDED READING


WASHINGTON — Should shoppers turn off their smartphones when they hit the mall? Or does having them on lead to better sales or shorter lines at the cash register?

Retailers are using mobile-based technology to track shoppers' movements at some malls and stores. The companies collecting the information say it's anonymous, can't be traced to a specific person and no one should worry about invasion of privacy. But consumer advocates aren't convinced. It's spying, they say, and shoppers should be informed their phones are being observed and then be able to choose whether to allow it.

The Federal Trade Commission held a workshop Wednesday on the issue, part of a series of privacy seminars looking at emerging technologies and the impact on consumers. FTC attorney Amanda Koulousias says the commission wants to better understand how companies are using phone-location technology, how robust privacy controls are and whether shoppers are notified in advance.

Here's how the technology works:

• Your smartphone has a unique identifier code – a MAC address – for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It's a 12-character string of letters and numbers. Think of it like a Social Security or vehicle identification number, but this address is not linked to personal information, like your name, email address or phone number. The numbers and letters link only to a specific phone.

• When your smartphone is turned on, it sends out signals with that MAC address (for media access control) as it searches for Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Those signals can also be captured by sensors in stores that could tell a department store how often shoppers visit, how long they stay, whether they spend more time in the shoe department, children's clothing section or sporting goods, or whether they stop for the window display, take a pass and decide to move on.

Companies that provide "mobile location analytics" to retailers, grocery stores, airports, and others say they capture the MAC addresses of shoppers' phones but then scramble them into different sets of numbers and letters to conceal the original addresses – a process called hashing. This is how they make the data they collect anonymous, they say.

The companies then analyze all the information those hashed numbers provide as shoppers move from store to store in a mall, or department to department in a store. Mall managers could learn which stores are popular and which ones aren't. A retailer could learn how long the lines are at a certain cash register, how long people have to wait – or whether more people visit on "sale" days at a store.

"We're in the business of helping brick and mortar retailers compete" with online retailers, said Jim Riesenbach, CEO of California-based iInside, a mobile location analytics company. "The retailers want to do the right thing because they know that if they violate the trust of consumers, there will be a backlash."

Privacy advocates, though, argue that the scrambled or "hashed" MAC addresses aren't completely secure. They can be cracked, says Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And that could reveal data that people may not want to share.

"There might be some place that you go that you wouldn't want people to know about," said Schoen. While not necessarily worried about foot traffic at a mall, Schoen raised concerns about down-the-road scenarios, like apps that could track where a person goes, whom that person is with – possibly the kind of information a divorce lawyer or law enforcement might seek.

The retail tracking is a relatively new technology.

Nordstrom tried a small pilot test in 17 of its more than 250 stores in September 2012. The company posted signs at doors telling shoppers they could opt out by turning off their Wi-Fi. Nordstrom ended the trial in May 2013 after some customers complained, saying they felt uncomfortable, spokeswoman Brooke White said.

An AP-GfK poll in January found half of Americans were extremely or very concerned about the ability of retailers to keep their personal information secure.

Older Americans were far more concerned about the safety of that information than younger ones – 59 percent of those age 50 or over said they were extremely or very concerned about it, compared with 46 percent age 30 to 49 and 32 percent of people under age 30.

Some of the major players in the field of mobile location analytics – iInside, Euclid, Mexia Interactive and others – have agreed to a "code of conduct" advanced by a Washington-based think tank, the Future of Privacy Forum. It calls for "hashing" MAC addresses, notification signs in stores for consumers and an opt-out website for people to enter their phones' MAC addresses to prevent companies from tracking them. The opt-out website can be found at www.smartstoreprivacy.org.

     
Comments
A new threat this shopping season: toys that can spy on kids

A new threat this shopping season: toys that can spy on kids

ST. PETERSBURG — Not all sinister toys are as obvious as a Chucky doll. Many present more subtle threats — choking hazards, high lead content, privacy concerns. And as the biggest shopping season of the year kicks off, consumer advocates are urging s...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Indian automaker plant is latest sign of Detroit comeback

Indian automaker plant is latest sign of Detroit comeback

It has been years since Detroit, birthplace of the American auto industry, was a steady producer of the manufacturing jobs that defined it as the Motor City. But its comeback is entering a new phase.The latest milestone came this week, with the annou...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Big Tobacco’s anti-smoking ads begin after decade of delay

Big Tobacco’s anti-smoking ads begin after decade of delay

Associated PressWASHINGTON — Decades after they were banned from the airwaves, Big Tobacco companies return to prime-time television this weekend — but not by choice. Under court order, the industry for the first time will be forced to advertise the ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Ybor ’s first public school, long gone, still has a story to tell about district’s history

Ybor ’s first public school, long gone, still has a story to tell about district’s history

TAMPAIt’s been more than a century since Ybor City’s first public school was demolished on the plot of land now identified as 1311 E Eighth Ave.For the past 22 years, the popular concert venue New World Brewery took up the space and one next door. No...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Barricades reinforce security for holiday events on St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront

Barricades reinforce security for holiday events on St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront

ST. PETERSBURG — World and national tragedies are changing the city’s approach to security for special events at North Straub Park.With the approach of the holidays, concrete barricades have been erected at a section of the park’s perimeter, where Fo...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Copa Airlines to fly daily nonstop from Tampa to Panama next summer

Copa Airlines to fly daily nonstop from Tampa to Panama next summer

TAMPA — Panama’s Copa Airlines, which four years ago became the first airline to offer service between Panama and Tampa Bay, said it is increasing its nonstop service between Tampa International Airport and Panama City to daily flights starting in Ju...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Irma did not stop tourists from setting record visits to Florida so far in 2017

Irma did not stop tourists from setting record visits to Florida so far in 2017

Despite Hurricane Irma, Florida hit another record high number in tourists visiting the state in the first nine months of this year, according to figures released this week.Visit Florida, the state’s tourism bureau, said 88.2 million visitors came to...
Updated: 11 hours ago
FCC chairman unveils proposal to repeal net neutrality

FCC chairman unveils proposal to repeal net neutrality

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday followed through on his pledge to repeal 2015 regulations designed to ensure that internet service providers treat all online content and apps equally, setting up a showdown ...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Crime Stoppers, Straz Foundation still working out Seminole Heights reward money

Crime Stoppers, Straz Foundation still working out Seminole Heights reward money

TAMPA — You can collect $110,000 in reward money for information leading to an arrest in the Seminole Heights killings, but for now you’ll have to make two stops.The David A. Straz Foundation announced Monday it would contribute $10,000 to a reward f...
Published: 11/21/17
Hurricane Irma hurt some Tampa Bay home sales even in October

Hurricane Irma hurt some Tampa Bay home sales even in October

Pinellas County home sales took another hurricane-related hit in October as the rest of the Tampa Bay area bounced back from Hurricane Irma.But while prices in all four counties rose once again, the rate of increase continues to slow. Hillsborough’s...
Updated: 10 hours ago