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New Privacy Website Lets You Opt Out of Tracking In Retail Stores

Participating Retailers Must Notify Shoppers They're Being Tracked

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An in-store mobile location privacy control christened by New York Senator Charles Schumer has come to fruition.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer
Sen. Charles E. Schumer Credit: AP

Slightly ahead of schedule, Future of Privacy Forum has introduced SmartStorePrivacy.org, a site where consumers can opt-out from having their mobile devices tracked while visiting commercial locations.

Eleven firms have agreed to honor the code of conduct and opt-out rules devised by Future of Privacy Forum: Aislelabs, Brickstream, Euclid, iInside, Measurence, Mexia Interactive, Path Intelligence, Radius Networks, ReadMe Systems, SOLOMO Technology and Turnstyle Solutions.

Mobile location analytics systems are becoming more widespread, and are used to monitor checkout wait times and to trace customer footpaths in retail outlets.

However, despite the new ability to opt-out from several technologies tracking location in stores, eateries and airports, the limits of the system symbolize a rapid pace of technology development moving too fast for industry self-regulators to keep up.

Sen. Schumer, a critic of retail tracking without notification, anointed the location analytics opt-out project when it was announced in October. In 2011, when Path Intelligence tracking technology was deployed in shopping malls in New York, he sent a missive to the company stating the company should obtain opt-in consent from device owners before monitoring their movements. Path Intelligence is participating in the new program.

Absent from the list is Nomi, a mobile analytics tracking company, and Sensity Systems, a firm written about in the New York Times that equips light fixtures with data tracking sensors installed at Newark Airport.

The new opt-out site requires people to submit their MAC address, a numerical identifier unique to every device. While the program offers a valid first step towards providing people with better control over how their whereabouts are traced by technologies that use MAC addresses, it misses others employing a other means of tracking location, including video, LED lighting or mobile device IDs unique to telecom providers.

Most shops using these technologies say they don't want to track people on an individual level, and the tracking systems usually only provide analytics data in aggregate. Still, controversy remains regarding MAC addresses and whether they are personally-identifiable.

Another wrinkle: The program calls for retailers and other owners of business locations affected to post notifications alerting consumers of the existence of the opt-out program. That aspect of the project promises to be a challenge, as shopkeepers are bound to hesitate to reveal location data collection practices to their customers. Future of Privacy Forum is working with a researcher to develop signage that will be recognizable to consumers while appeasing businesses.

It's early days, suggested Jules Polonetsky, executive director of Future of Privacy Forum. "We're certainly looking at those [other technologies] to understand how and where any rules that are relevant should be applicable," he said. Rather than wait until technical standards for mobile location analytics tracking emerge, the privacy group aims to influence privacy-by-design as new technologies come to the fore.

"We can wait until the full ecosystem is clear…but the downside is it becomes very hard to retrofit," he said. "The goal is to have some flexibility so as another technology becomes available, you can update and grow."

The Federal Trade Commission will tackle privacy issues associated with mobile device data tracking at a discussion to be held in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.

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