We all know the risks of online shopping: We’ve heard horror stories about higher prices put in place for Mac users, and to clear your cookies and travel history when shopping around on travel sites because the prices will inflate. But that’s just because retailers want more information about you. All the information, really. And since you were so polite as to buy, charge, and start carrying around what amounts to a tracking beacon, they’re going to spy on you while you’re on the premises.
At least, that’s the gist of a recent New York Times article discussing tests retailers are engaging in to learn more about you. Essentially they use the tech they already have installed, like surveillance cameras, and start tracking you using your phone the minute you walk in the door, generally by using your Wi-Fi signal. They’ll analyze everything from how long you spend in certain aisles to how you behave in a store based on your gender.
Yes, they’re using science to prove bad comedy routines about “you ladies and your mall shopping.” Needless to say, shoppers are a little creeped out at the idea that they’re being tracked, especially since their actions might be tied fairly directly to their identity if they buy anything. But stores aren’t required to inform customers, it’s perfectly legal to do what they want on their premises, and it’s more pervasive than you think: Both high-end Nordstrom’s and cheapo Family Dollar are playing with the technology.
In the end, the only effective way to keep this technology from tracking you is to shut off your phone before you enter the store. Even then, they might be able to track your behavior, but there’s no reason you can’t make life a little harder for them. Especially if they won’t take back that hideous tie you got for your birthday.
Dan Seitz is an obsessive nerd living in New England. He lives in the Boston area with a fiancee, a dog, a cat, and far too many objects with processors.