U.S. senator demands suspension of phone-tracking system

Responding to privacy concerns, two U.S. malls postpone rollout of Point Intelligence technology that tracks shoppers' movement through their phones

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The monitoring systems transfer the user movement data they collect to a Path Intelligence data center. There, the data is audited and analyzed in real time, and retailers can automatically view reports via the company's secure Web-based reporting system. Reports provide information about the flow of shoppers through the malls, detail information such as the number of footfalls per store; the amount of time people spend in a given store; sales turnover by retailer as well as general business category (cafes, fashion/jewelry/giftware, services); and how many shoppers who, for example, visited the Gap also visited Nordstrom on a given day.

Stepping down a slippery slope
From a retailer perspective, there's plenty to like about this sort of system: It gives businesses a way to effectively, discretely, and inexpensively track the individuals movements of hundreds customers from the moment they enter a mall or a store to the moment they leave. Thanks to the cloud, they can quickly access reports about shopper behavior and make adjustments to store layout to boost sales and better service shoppers.

The technology may look less rosy to the public, though, as evidenced by Schumer's response to the news about the technology being deployed. Being told (directly or otherwise) "if you are going to keep your personal mobile device on, we are going to track your every movement in our store. But don't worry; we're not going to misuse that info" might not sit well with some users -- especially those who have opted to entrust their data with other businesses, such as financial institutions, only to see it stolen by hackers or sold to third parties. Retailers, businesses, and Point Intelligence can swear up and down that the technology is fully secure and that user data remains private and protected, but ultimately, a user has no real way of knowing that for certain.

Further, this technology reveals just what is possible in this age of mobile computing. The mall owners had planned to post signs to alert customers about the system, and Point Intelligence offers some level of transparency and detail as to how it protects user information. But it's entirely possible that other organizations, whether corporate, governmental, or criminal, wouldn't be as forthcoming as they used less-secure mobile-device-tracking technology to slurp up data from people's devices for any number of purposes.

InfoWorld Security Adviser Roger A. Grimes alluded to the potential security and privacy risks of this type of technology, particularly in the context of systems being capable of grabbing the unique identifiers from users' devices. "If you have a unique identifier of any time, and people are able to track it at different locations and sites, it can become a privacy issue," he said. "History has shown that vendors telling us not to worry about the this type of thing have 'somehow' been able to convert the unique identifier into a real identity later on, often because a person visits a location that doesn't have a strong security policy. That second site can collect the real identity information, then sell it to other people who just collect the unique identifier."

This story was updated on Nov. 28, 2011.

This story, "U.S. senator demands suspension of phone-tracking system," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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