By tracking customers' mobile data, the Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Virginia, had hoped to get a better idea of how visitors were spending their time while shopping. Perhaps what they didn't expect was the outcry from data privacy advocates, including a U.S. Senator, who criticized the practice.
According to a recent CNNMoney report, the two malls have since scrapped their information collection practices after having rolled them out for Black Friday – among the busiest shopping days of the year in the United States. The malls had planned to continue what they where calling a survey through New Year's Day, but the backlash from data security supporters was apparently too great.
Both shopping centers are managed by Cleveland-based Forest City Commercial Management. The company used FootPath technology, which, according to its provider Path Intelligence, allows retailers to track what areas – in this case a mall – consumers visit most by collecting location data from their cellphone signals.
"We have temporarily suspended further trial of the technology while we work with the system developer on possible enhancements, and in deference to concerns raised by Senator [Charles] Schumer," the company said, according to CNNMoney. "We look forward to meeting with the senator and his staff, together with the system developer, to further explore his concerns."
Senator Schumer, a Democrat from New York, was among the most high-profile and outspoken opponents of Forest City's data-tracking plan.
In a statement on his website released November 28, Schumer voiced his displeasure with the practice and warned mobile users to be vigilant when protecting the data produced and stored on their smartphones, tablets and the like. He was particularly unhappy about the fact that the only way to opt-out of being tracked by the technology is to turn a mobile device off upon entering a retail location.
"Personal cellphones are just that – personal. If retailers want to tap into your phone to see what your shopping patterns are, they can ask you for your permission to do so," Schumer said. "It shouldn’t be up to the consumer to turn their cellphone off when they walk into the mall to ensure they aren’t being virtually tailed."
Schumer also argued that, although Forest City and Path Intelligence – its supplier for the FootPath technology system – have said data is kept anonymous, it can still be breached should a cybercriminal gain access to the mall's network or that of the phone company.
"[R]equiring someone to shut off their phones in order not to be tracked is an unacceptable option, particularly when a Christmas shopping trip to the mall can last hours," the website release from the senator stated.
According to CNNMoney, instead of personal information, a random identification is assigned to each shopper's mobile device. It is then tracked as if watching "dots moving around a screen."
Path Intelligence chief executive officer Sharon Biggar has offered to speak with Senator Schumer to clear up any confusion over her company's FootPath technology, CNN also reported. She said the practice of collecting data on shoppers in the digital world is common practice and is often done without consumers' knowledge.
"We are simply seeking to create a level playing field for offline retailers, and believe you can do so whilst simultaneously protecting the privacy of shoppers," she said.
This is not the first time that the tracking of mobile data has become a contentious topic. In April, Apple found itself in hot water following claims that it tracked the location of users of its popular iPhone. According to the company, it does so to ensure the devices receive the best possible signal by connecting to the nearest cell tower.
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