Malls May Be Tracking Your Phone Signals This Holiday Season
November 25, 2011

Malls May Be Tracking Your Phone Signals This Holiday Season

Two US malls, Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Virginia, are testing a cell phone tracking program in hopes of learning more about where you are shopping and what you are looking for, Annalyn Censky reports for CNN Money.

US malls have long tracked how crowds move throughout their stores, this is the first time they´ve used cell phone signals but gathering that information opens up privacy concerns.

Forest City Commercial Management, the management company for both malls, says personal data is not being tracked. “We won´t be looking at singular shoppers,” said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City. “The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to.”

The service, called FootPath Technology installs discreet receivers attached to walls at the location to be tracked, and these devices then track anyone in the vicinity with a switched-on cell phone.

The person-specific tracking allows the system to determine which stores get the most traffic, and which areas within the stores attract the largest crowds. The technology can help store managers answer even more specific questions such as how many Nordstrom shoppers also stop at Starbucks? Or how long do most customers linger in Victoria´s Secret?

All the information is anonymous, the company promises, and anyone can immediately opt out by simply turning off their cell phone, Adario Strange of PCMag reports. Although when and where exactly the system is being utilized is not addressed.

“We don´t need to know who it is and we don´t need to know anyone´s cell phone number, nor do we want that,” Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City, told CNN's Annalyn Censky.

This technology has already been used in shopping centers in Europe and Australia. And according to Path Intelligence CEO Sharon Biggar, hardly any shoppers decide to opt out.

“It´s just not invasive of privacy,” she said. “There are no risks to privacy, so I don´t see why anyone would opt out.”

Now, US retailers including JCPenney and Home Depot are also believed to be working with this technology, Biggar said. However Home Depot has not yet announced it is in place and JCPenney declined to comment on its relationship with the vendor.

Some industry analysts worry about the broader implications of this kind of technology. “Most of this information is harmless and nobody ever does anything nefarious with it,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, retail analyst at Forrester Research.

“But the reality is, what happens when you start having hackers potentially having access to this information and being able to track your movements?”

“I´m sure as more people get more cell phones, it´s probably inevitable that it will continue as a resource,” Mulpuru said. “But I think the future is going to have to be opt in, not opt out.”


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