Attention, shoppers: Store is tracking you via your smartphone

“Like dozens of other brick-and-mortar retailers, Nordstrom wanted to learn more about its customers — how many came through the doors, how many were repeat visitors — the kind of information that e-commerce sites like Amazon have in spades,” Stephanie Clifford and Quentin Hardy report for The New York Times. “So last fall the company started testing new technology that allowed it to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones.”

“But when Nordstrom posted a sign telling customers it was tracking them, shoppers were unnerved,” Clifford and Hardy report. “‘We did hear some complaints,’ said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for the store. Nordstrom ended the experiment in May, she said, in part because of the comments.”

“Nordstrom’s experiment is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it,” Clifford and Hardy report. “But while consumers seem to have no problem with cookies, profiles and other online tools that let e-commerce sites know who they are and how they shop, some bristle at the physical version, at a time when government surveillance — of telephone calls, Internet activity and Postal Service deliveries — is front and center because of the leaks by Edward J. Snowden.”

Clifford and Hardy report, “If a shopper’s phone is set to look for Wi-Fi networks, a store that offers Wi-Fi can pinpoint where the shopper is in the store, within a 10-foot radius, even if the shopper does not connect to the network, said Tim Callan, RetailNext’s chief marketing officer… The store can also recognize returning shoppers, because mobile devices send unique identification codes when they search for networks. That means stores can now tell how repeat customers behave and the average time between visits… Nomi, of New York, uses Wi-Fi to track customers’ behavior in a store, but goes one step further by matching a phone with an individual.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Wonder if some retailers are also tracking what web site(s) you’re visiting in the store in order to compare prices while using their public Wi-Fi? We’d say it’s highly likely. God only knows what else they’re tracking.

We ought to launch a Kickstarter project for a portable, roll-up mirror for users to place over the ones in retail store changing rooms (if there isn’t one already).</blockquote

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader "David G." for the heads up.]

25 Comments

  1. They can’t track you like this if just use your own mobile data plan. Your iPhone isn’t going to connect automatically to a store’s Wifi network until you authorize it to connect.

    1. I don’t claim to know much about wifi, but potentially could they track that a device is giving off a wifi signal in much the same way that your device can detect wifi networks even if not joined to them.

      1. Sure, but that’s not going to lead to specific information about the customer or track what websites they are using.

        They could maybe count how many people in the store by counting the number Wifi devices, and maybe identify the type of devices. They can pretty much get that and more through their security cameras.

    2. You don’t have to connect for them to track your location. Read the article. Even the synopsis told the real facts. You have to turn your WiFi off to defeat this type of snooping.

  2. Privacy, the newest endangered species! It’s time to view this sort of thing as a violation of basic human rights. Is there nothing about anyone of us that all the rest of us are not entitled to know? Is this the logical outcome of reality TV where exhibitionists compete for attention from millions of viewers? Perhaps dignity is also an endangered species.

    1. One big difference between reality TV and real life is that reality TV participants voluntarily exchange their privacy for money. The rest of us aren’t volunteering and aren’t compensated.

  3. @MDN

    Another reason to support net neutrality. Right now there’s nothing stopping a store from modifying the price displayed on a competitor’s website when using the in-store wi-fi.

    1. Sure there is. Shop only at sites that use https connections. Then the store you are in would have to be successfully defeating the end-to-end encryption with a man-in-the-middle attack — not something easily done.

      1. HTTPS might not be as secure as you think. It’s certainly better than no encryption – but it has been broken in many instances. The exact encryption algorithm it uses depends on the both the web browser and web server. Not all computers can use the world’s most effective encryption algorithm, AES-256, so simpler cryptographic algorithms are more often used for HTTPS.

    1. Faraday Cage Fashion™ Week!

      Head on over to your local Faraday Cage Fashion™ for the latest in privacy couture. Look dapper with a Faraday Cage bowler on you napper! And oh the aluminum shoes we have for you! Every anodized color choice imaginable. And don’t look stiff and robotic like those other Faraday Cage fakes. Our fabrics are woven with only the finest gauge copper wire with added tensile strength! No one but the NSA spies are going to know you’re wearing it. Your privates remain private. It’s the perfect pallium for your personal privacy!

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  4. Similar reasons why we constantly get the nagging iPhone “Turn on your Wifi for……”BS message. An annoying message we constantly get even though we explicitly turn the damn thing off.

    For all we know all cell phone manufactuers could already be involved in some secret dealings with
    retail outlets involving this very matter.

  5. Well who the hell has their phone set to search for Wi-Fi networks anyway? If you do then you deserve to be tracked and monitored. Control the settings on your phone. A lot of this tracking is the users fault. Quit hanging out on social media. Ultimately it’s just not necessary. And very little positive ever comes of it. Get a life. Of your own. Quit feeling the need to share it and everything you do. Learn to turn off your phone once in a while. It won’t kill you. Especially when in retail establishments. Learn to look out for yourself. Because no one else will.

    1. I am so with you! I foresee a Joy of Tech where a fellow is wandering through a store complaining on Facebook about how this store tracks you, all the while keeping a running Twitter feed about what products he’s looking at in the store.

  6. If you walk into THEIR store they have the right to photograph you (except in restrooms and dressing rooms) and track you visually and electronically so they can see how traffic moves on their private property. What’s the big deal? They also track what you purchase when you make a purchase, and THAT part isn’t anonymously.

    Nordstrom’s problem was that their sign was undoubtedly poorly written unnecessarily scaring their customers.

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