Privacy Double Standard: You Can Track Online But Not On Foot

Linda Musthaler
By | July 19, 2013

Posted in: Network Security Trends

There’s an article in the New York Times about how retail stores are increasingly using technology to track customers’ movements and interests when they are physically in the stores. (Check out the article’s video to see some of this technology in action.)

Stores use Wi-Fi signals from customers’ mobile phones to track where an individual goes within the store and how long the person lingers at a merchandise display. When this technology is combined with video surveillance and facial recognition software, it’s possible to tell the customer’s reaction to an item or even her mood as she shops. For example, a subtle lift of the eyebrows might mean real interest in a product.

Physical retailers say they need this kind of technology and the analysis behind it to address customers’ specific needs and improve their merchandizing and eventually their sales. Retailers, of course, are trying to stem their loss of market share as customers take their business online or to other physical stores via “showrooming”—that is, finding something in a store, looking up that item using a comparison app on the smart phone, and then buying it elsewhere online or in person.

In essence, retails stores are playing catch-up to e-tailers who are able to track their customers’ movements and interests via mouse clicks. A website can help determine how much interest a customer has in a particular product by tracking how long the person stays on a particular item page, whether the person looks at detailed product specifications, whether the person reads other customers’ product reviews, and so on. With the exception of the facial expressions, virtually the same information about the customer is collected and tracked via cookies.

Here’s rub of what I’m calling the double standard: customers seem to be OK with the web-based tracking but they find the in-store tracking “creepy” and a violation of their privacy. When Nordstrom experimented with the in-store tracking technology – which included posting a sign telling customers this was being done – some customers complained. One person said it was “way over the line.” When a coffee shop made use of the sophisticated technology, a customer commented, “The creepy thing isn’t the privacy violation; it’s how much they can infer.” And I suppose this guy has never had online adds follow (stalk?) him when he leaves one website and goes to another. 

Maybe it’s a perception of digital privacy versus physical privacy. As a society, have we come to accept that nothing is private on the Internet and we shouldn’t expect privacy? I don’t think that’s the case, given the extreme backlash against the revelation that the National Security Agency collects mobile phone metadata. Perhaps many people just don’t realize how much of their private lives they are revealing when they do anything digitally. And what about when consumers are in retail stores? Those are public places, so is it reasonable to expect that personal movements within the store and facial expressions should be considered private? After all, anyone in that store can observe those actions, with or without surveillance cameras and tracking devices.

Ironically, the NYT article includes a comment that goes to show that people are willing to trade their privacy for a chance to save a buck. One customer who wasn’t even aware of the in-store tracking methods said she would “just love it” if a coupon were to pop up on her phone. And how would that coupon just pop up if the store didn’t know her location, her interests and her identifying address or phone number?

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