Will Third Party Marketers Win the Tracking War?

Just when you thought it was safe to walk outside… big brother may still be watching.

Reports have recently surfaced about two malls in the United States, particularly Short Pump Town Center in nearby Richmond, which have decided to stop tracking customers through the use of their cell phones. Retailers say the information they glean is benign enough – shopping trends and locations of customers.  They do not receive or track individual cell numbers, text messages or log details to customers they track.  The information that most interests retailers is which shops are visited and how long the visits last -“foot traffic and shopping patterns”, according to management one company spokesman.

As it currently stands, an opt out exists (or customers may simply turn off their cell phones), but the question remains as to how transparent the operation is.  Signs are to be posted in the stores subscribing to the service, but many people entering the mall may not even be aware they are being tracked.  Letters have been sent to the FTC to clarify privacy issues – what information is gathered and how far the management company must go to protect that information.  The suggestion has been raised giving customers the choice to opt in rather than opt out of the tracking.

None of this is very comforting to Sen. Charles E. Schumer who put pressure on Forest City Commercial Management to stop the test program.  A spokesman for the management company said the plans were suspended until it could work out details with the developer.   According to its website, the software developer, Path Intelligence, is committed to protecting privacy and goes to great detail to assure the mall customer that personal and private information is never gathered or accessed nor disseminated by their system.  What interests their clients are the actual foot traffic of the mall customers, hence, the name of the software Path Intelligence has given its product, FootPath.

At least for this shopping season, the tracking through cell phone signals has abated.  But the technology is still out there.  And as long as the technology exists, someone will be looking to make it useful.  And as long as there are questions hanging in the balance, the legal world will be keeping a close eye on the subject.

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