Holiday season bringing cell phone tracking privacy concerns

Two shopping malls in the United States have suspended plans to use FootPath, a new technology system that tracks consumer movements through their personal cell phones, after questions of privacy issues were raised by U.S. Senator Charles Schumer.

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This new technology was planned to run in two Forest City malls, one in California (The Promenade in Temecula) and the other in Virginia during this holiday season. Signs posted at each location reported that the mall was conducting an “anonymous mobile phone survey,” which began on Black Friday. Concerns for privacy issues were then raised and both malls temporarily suspended plans for the run.

The Promenade mall in Temecula has released an online statement reminding consumers that “all information gathered by the system is anonymous” and “the option for them to decline to participate is to turn off their mobile phones.” Yet many residents and customers are still not convinced that this system is as anonymous as stated and unhappy with the “opt-out” option of not being able to use their phones while shopping at these locations. Forest City Commercial Management stated that the company will “work with the system developer on possible enhancements, and in deference to concerns raised by Senator Schumer.”

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Location-based marketing is already a key component for a lot of brands’ marketing strategies with the use of applications such as Foursquare, Living Social, and Shopkick. By analyzing the information given by FootPath, the mall can better understand their costumer’s wants and interests, improving their experience. Although this type of monitoring may bring discomfort for some consumers, programs like this may end up benefiting the consumer with more personalized sales and promotions. Joanne McNabb, Chief of the California Office of Privacy Protection said, “The state generally considers location data to be sensitive information, but it doesn’t rise to the level of sensitivity of information such as Social Security numbers.” Although some fear that “Big Brother” could be watching is still unsettling, the public still enables GPS tracking to occur when using it to find directions or to be rescued if lost. Yet once it’s used by the government or for retailer purposes, it’s considered a violation.

DGWB Perspective

As communicated in a previous blog post, “Facial Recognition Advertising: New Marketing Frontier… big brother?”, the issue of privacy can be seen in all aspects of marketing technology. Just as with facial recognition technology, in order to succeed in mobile tracking, consumers must trust brands that use the technology. Although the fear of “Big Brother” watching may be uncomfortable, new advances in technology can be a beneficial tool in marketing, but (again) not at the expense of the consumers.

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