This guest post was contributed by Henry Witcher.
In the wake of government privacy invasion scandals, the revelation earlier this year that retailers such as Nordstrom have been using smartphones to track customers in stores has many consumers concerned. It turns out, this represents an emerging technology businesses have been using to monitor customers for several years. It’s all possible with help from providers such as Euclid Analytics, who offer the brick-and-mortar equivalent of the cookies websites use to collect information about visitors, Adweek reports.
Tracking web surfing is one thing, but following you around in stores is something else. Some consumers are wondering how intrusive this new technology is, and what steps they can take to make sure it doesn’t violate their privacy.
How Smartphone Tracking Works
When a law enforcement officer or private investigator is conducting a stakeout, the surveillance team creates an invisible box around the subject to keep them surrounded by eyes with all exit routes covered. Store smartphone surveillance works in a similar way by creating a wireless GPS box, a technique called “geofencing.” GPS data collected from a shopper’s smartphone can let a business know when a cell phone owner has entered the store, and which aisle they’re in. Some stores use geofencing to send smartphone owners text alerts about promotions when they get within close proximity to a store.
Why Stores Do It, and Why Consumers Are Concerned
Stores see smartphone tracking as a way to boost sales by identifying prospective buyers, customizing their shopping experience and deploying sales representatives to assist customers in aisles. For instance, if the store’s tracking system identifies a shopper in a particular aisle who has a history of buying certain products, a representative can look up their purchasing preferences and go to assist them.
Similarly, customized discount and coupon offers can be texted to shoppers. Providers such as Euclid Analytics say this can improve shopper satisfaction without compromising privacy, if stores take a transparent approach to tracking by being upfront about it and offering opt-out options.
Consumer rights advocates, however, are aware opt-out options previously used in such arenas as telemarketing and email marketing have not stopped activities that misuse personal information for purposes other than its original intent — such as phishing website scams that informed consumers should be familiar with.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Privacy
For consumers who want to avoid unwanted tracking, computer experts have discovered some workarounds. You can adjust your smartphone settings, or install apps to disable tracking features and clear your cache of location information.
Other options are to temporarily disable GPS features, or to turn off your phone and remove the battery before entering a store. However, be aware these solutions may potentially inhibit your use of beneficial location-based features, such as navigation maps. Instructions vary with the smartphone model and operating system, so consult the specifics of your device for details.
Henry left the corporate IT world to blog about technology and mobile app development from his home in Los Angeles.