RSR Research: Privacy and the Public Domain
Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, Retail Systems Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers.
In late November, there was a big flap in the U.S. about Footpath by Path Intelligence, a tracking software that detects the signal coming out of your mobile phone and uses it to track your path through a location, typically a mall but also potentially in a large format retailer. It requires the location to install hardware to do the tracking, but nothing is installed on the shopper’s mobile phone, not even a chance to opt out. Theoretically, the location is supposed to put up signs notifying shoppers that this is happening, but it’s not exactly a requirement.
The signal that comes out of the mobile phone does include identifying information about the phone itself, but Path Intelligence says that it scrambles that data right away so that no one ever knows anything personally identifiable about the owner or carrier of the phone.
Proponents say nothing personally identifiable ever gets used and it ultimately benefits shoppers because retailers can be better at serving them from the insights they get from the data. Critics claim shoppers don’t get to opt out except to turn off their phones, the only benefit falls on retailers looking to sell more stuff, and retailers will only eventually be tempted to use that private information.
I get the outrage. If you have an expectation of privacy, then you have every right to be upset.
The problem is that whole expectation thing. An example: Google provides an easy search of the web — for free. In exchange, it collects information about you that it uses to make money. Offline has similar tradeoffs.
But is it reasonable to have an expectation of privacy in a public space? If I’m in a store, I’m not in my house. I’m not on my private property. Someone who knows me could easily recognize me and flag me down. Should I object that she waved at me because she’s invading my privacy?
Should a consumer, in a public venue like a mall, have the ability to opt out of footpath tracking? If a mall really wanted to, it could achieve the same end with people following you around or by using cameras. As long as they’re not harassing you, they have just as much right to be there as you do — more so, since they’re acting on behalf of the location’s owners.
So why not mobile phones? If you’re out and about and letting your phone spill its unprotected data everywhere all the time, where anyone can see your face just as easily, it seems difficult to me to make a case for an expectation of privacy.
If you don’t like it, don’t take it out on Path Intelligence and their breed of analytics. Direct your outrage where it belongs: the handset manufacturer and your wireless carrier. The solution begins at the source of the problem — your mobile phone.
Or, you could always buy some tin foil.
Discussion questions: Should a consumer, in a public venue like a mall, have the ability to opt out of footpath tracking? How much consumer resistance do you expect to mobile tracking? What level of privacy should shoppers expect beyond tracking?