How Some Stores Track Shoppers' Every Move

Technology allows retailers to tap into WiFi signal, track movements

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    NEWSLETTERS

    When a shopper enters some stores, technology taps into the smartphone's WiFi signal. That allows the retailer to physically track a shopper’s movement through the store. Lisa Parker reports. (Published Tuesday, Jul 23, 2013)

    Some retailers are using controversial technology to track shoppers' every move. They don't do it with security cameras. They do it with the consumer's own phone.

    When a shopper enters some stores, technology taps into the smartphone's WiFi signal. That allows the retailer to physically track a shopper’s movement through the store. It records how long customers linger, where they've been, and what catches their eye.

    “I’ve never heard about it.”
    “That freaks me out.”
    “That’s an invasion of my privacy."

    Those are just some of the responses offered by a sampling of shoppers recently polled along Michigan Avenue when asked about what they knew of the technology.

    So who uses it? Nordstrom did, but stopped. Target acknowledged its uses the system, and Family Dollar said it’s trying it out.

    Of 21 retailers questioned, seven declined to comment. Those that did, including Walgreens and Sears, all said they do not track shoppers with WiFi signals.

    Retailers say the data is used for marketing. The company that sells the service, Euclid Analytics, says 30 national retailers use the technology but wouldn't identify them. Instead, the company revealed only the ZIP codes where its services are being used. That tells us the systems are in stores somewhere in Chicago, Skokie and Naperville. Euclid said none of the data captured and analyzed is personal.

    Privacy experts aren’t convinced.

    "There is no consent," said Chicago Kent School Of Law Dean Harold Krent. "There is no meaningful give-and-take about whether a consumer wants to be tracked. So that is the risk here, the danger."

    Also troubling, Krent said, is the digital shelf life of the information gathered.

    "We simply do not know what will happen to this information. How long will it last? When will it be destroyed? Will it be connected or meshed with data sets in other places?" he questioned.

    They're issues that have also resonated with U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), who recently wrote to Euclid Analytics.

    "People have a fundamental right to privacy. Neglecting to ask consumers for their permission to track them violates that," said Franken, adding that he plans to reintroduce a bill that would require companies to get that permission this fall.

    The industry insists privacy is being respected. Tim Callan, the chief marketing officer of another monitoring company called Retailnext, said shoppers shouldn’t be worried.

    "The industry is paying a lot of attention to what it needs to do to ensure that the data can be collected without stepping on the privacy of others," he explained.

    For now, the best bet for shoppers who don’t want to be tracked is to simply turn off the WiFi capability of their phones. Consumers can also go to Euclid Analytics' website to opt out.