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Malls track shoppers' cell phones on Black Friday
November 23, 2011 5:14 AM   Subscribe

Shopper Stalking: Starting on Black Friday and running through New Year's Day, two U.S. malls -- Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. -- will track guests' movements by monitoring the signals from their cell phones. "It's just not invasive of privacy," said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City. "There are no risks to privacy, so I don't see why anyone would opt out." (Consumers can opt out by turning off their phones.)
posted by Blake (153 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Aren't the two quotes from the CEO of the company who makes the tracking product?
posted by vacapinta at 5:19 AM on November 23, 2011


Consumers can opt out by not consuming.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:20 AM on November 23, 2011 [43 favorites]


I guess it's obvious that they can also opt out by not going to those malls. But wait, I don't own a cell phone.

Dammit, I don't know whether to feel angrily paranoid, boycottishly indignant, or hipterishly outside-the-mainstrream. And what the hell, I live at least a thousand miles away from both of those places. Geographically smug?
posted by benito.strauss at 5:22 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


But thanks for sending me to CNN Money, because I got to see the photo accompanying this article.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:26 AM on November 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


Malls have been tracking shoppers for years through people counters, security cameras, heat maps and even undercover researchers who follow shoppers around.

Most boring survailence job ever. These people must daydream a lot. I'd be imagining I was in all sorts of techno thrillers. I'd think of them on the way to work. "Whats is going be today... The Conversation? Sliver?"
posted by nathancaswell at 5:27 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dammit, I don't know whether to feel angrily paranoid, boycottishly indignant, or hipterishly outside-the-mainstrream. And what the hell, I live at least a thousand miles away from both of those places. Geographically smug?

Vicariously superior and pre-emptively grar.

Is how I feel.
posted by Skygazer at 5:28 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, there's probably some nice ways to fuck with their heads while they're tracking you...
posted by Skygazer at 5:31 AM on November 23, 2011


Malls have been tracking shoppers for years through people counters, security cameras, heat maps and even undercover researchers who follow shoppers around.

That's with their equipment and their people, in their space.

This is with your equipment and your only choice is to not use your equipment.
posted by infini at 5:32 AM on November 23, 2011 [20 favorites]


"track guests' movements"

Given the context, let's not use "guest" here. Maybe it's just because I was raised in the South, but that's not how you treat a guest.
posted by Legomancer at 5:32 AM on November 23, 2011 [50 favorites]


Most boring survailence job ever.

I used to work at a law firm that represented worker's comp insurance carriers. Sometimes we'd hire surveillance people to follow the claimants (injured employees) around to look for evidence that their injuries weren't as bad as they claimed. The ensuing reports were generally hilarious accounts of variety of completely mundane activities. "Observed him shopping at Wal-Mart, he was seen to pick up and lift large bags and push shopping carts with no sign of difficulty" with accompanying pictures to prove that, indeed, he had been shopping at Wal-Mart.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:32 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


"We won't be looking at singular shoppers," said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City

Dear Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, Vice President of Digital Strategy for Forest City Commercial Management,

The word you are looking for is individual. Individual shoppers. A singular shopper would be someone who buys, I dunno, eighteen cases of frozen yogurt and a balsa wood model of a schooner.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:34 AM on November 23, 2011 [112 favorites]


If they're not recording any personal data, just agglomerating a bunch of "customer 0000001 (or even a 1 way hash of the phone number) came in at time A, went to store X at time B, then store Y at time C then store Z at time D and left at time E" then, not so much an invasion of privacy.

If they couldn't resist the urge to record the phone number of each customer, and then use various public databases to correlate that with their name and address so they can heap yet more advertising on them, that's getting invasive.

But if I've learned anything from reading Bruce Scheier's blog, it's that they're probably doing everything in option two but also recording everything you bought from each store, your means of payment including your credit card numbers in an unencrypted file at an outward facing but unpublished URL and assuming that is secure.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:37 AM on November 23, 2011 [15 favorites]


-- Customer 32464 entered the Apple Store and wasted .75 hour playing with expensive toys
-- Customer 32464 stopped into an empty jewelry store for less than 1 minute to ask directions
-- Customer 32464 headed at top speed to the public ladies' room and stayed there for the length of one Angry Birds level
-- Customer 32464 decided to shop from home forever because this is super creepy and malls are absolute hell
posted by theredpen at 5:45 AM on November 23, 2011 [35 favorites]


This is marketing we're talking about. They will take this as far as absolutely possible, and accumulate all data possible, down to, and including, any personal information that happens to become available. Marketing people know no restraint when it comes to this stuff. They simply apply a heavy coat of "to improve the customer experience" to justify it all.

Of course, in the marketing world, "improve the customer experience" means "shove more ads in their face".

My guess is this will result in some sort of system where malls start pushing targeted "alerts" at phone users as they pass-by stores. Entering a mall with your phone on will stand as your acceptance of their EULA, meaning you agree to receive the alerts while you are in the mall. The only way to opt-out will be to turn your phone off.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:46 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hey look what's on sale.

Everyone show up with one of these and go everywhere but Spencer Gifts.
posted by orme at 5:47 AM on November 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


Wow, that sign in the mall in NO WAY actually explains or even HINTS AT what they're actually doing. "An anonymous mobile phone survey" sounds, to the average consumer, like maybe you'd be given a number you could call and fill out a survey or answer some questions about your experience in the mall? NOTHING IN THAT SIGN even implies "by being in this mall with your cell phone on you are agreeing to allow us to track every movement you make until you leave. That is shady as fuck.
posted by titus n. owl at 5:47 AM on November 23, 2011 [16 favorites]


The only way to stop nonsense like this is to vote with your wallet molotov cocktail.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:51 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


And remember, folks, it's on private property so you've already given up almost all of your rights by coming in off the street. There's no public thoroughfare. No right of assembly. No freedom to speak. Those aren't cops in those uniforms, they're mercenaries. Happy shopping!
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:54 AM on November 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


ive got some free time. i think i will stand right in front of the store window at the Lenscrafters—but not go in—and remain there for four solid hours, facing the store at all times, and occasionally shifting my weight and taking a single step alternately left and right so they know i didn't just drop my phone. every 20-25 minutes i will convulse violently for a period of not less than sixty seconds.
posted by fetamelter at 5:55 AM on November 23, 2011 [10 favorites]


Here's how it works. Corporate video.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 5:58 AM on November 23, 2011


Wow, that sign in the mall in NO WAY actually explains or even HINTS AT what they're actually doing.

This is why when, two weeks ago, Valve announced that they had been hacked, but went so far as to specify that their user database was salted and encrypted, I actually made little orgasm noises. Not only were they doing the right thing, but they actually bothered to tell me that they were, in fact, doing the right thing in a timely manner using grown up words rather than just saying, "blah blah industry standards blah blah committed to security blah blah customer experience."

The sad part is that them merely doing the right thing is over the top exceptional.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:00 AM on November 23, 2011 [12 favorites]


Is there a mall equivalent of Polka Jamboree (Polka Gymboree?) that people could swarm to in order to skew the findings?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:00 AM on November 23, 2011


Kinda makes you want to buy a bunch of cheap cell phones, gather some friends, and have some fun. Leave one in the men's room for hours. Toss one in a garbage can. Have a "family" of 6 walk circles around the mall. Perhaps have someone walk back and forth between Starbucks and the bathroom every 5 minutes?

If nothing else, the people with the incredibly-boring job of interpreting the data could have some fun with that.
posted by JMOZ at 6:01 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Even better, have two cell phones go into the bathroom together for 30 minutes.
posted by drezdn at 6:03 AM on November 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


Well, hopefully they will turn it off once they find Two-Face.
posted by griphus at 6:03 AM on November 23, 2011 [21 favorites]


Tired of YOUR privacy being invaded by shadowy "corporations"? quidnunc kid industries Limited can help YOU turn the tables on these peeping toms. Simply deposit all your money with quidnunc kid industries Limited and we will give it to various corporations to spend - on the condition that THEY provide YOU with a detailed breakdown of how, where and when they spend your money!

Lounge about in the comfort of your own home, as private as you like, while the CORPORATIONS reveal every single purchase they are making with your money. Here are some testimonials for people who care for that sort of thing:

"I gave all my money to quidnunc kid industries Limited, and now the corporations are telling ME what they're doing all day. A lot of it is pretty mundane, actually."
-- Alice N., Texas.

"I got three washing machines and a half-ton of orange pips for my life savings. But what nobody knows is that while the corporations were out spending my money, I was secretly pleasuring myself in a public park near a pre-school."
-- Ranjeet Sharma, 762 15th Street, Bangor, Maine.

"I swapped all my money for privacy, and it was worth every million. All I've ever wanted was not to be noticed - thanks, quidnunc kid industries Limited!"
-- Lady G-G., California.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:05 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


"It's important for shoppers to realize this sort of data is being collected anyway," Biggar said.

Whereas a website can track a customer who doesn't make a purchase, physical stores have been struggling to perfect this kind of research, Biggar said.


Oh yes, and thank you for reminding me HOW MUCH I FUCKING HATE THAT, TOO.
posted by penduluum at 6:05 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even better, have two cell phones go into the bathroom together for 30 minutes.

Why just two?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:06 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Imagine the fun a flash mob could have creating completely loony toon shopping patterns...
posted by Skygazer at 6:06 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Cinnabon
GameStop
Cinnabon
GameStop
Cinnabon
GameStop
Victoria's Secret
Bathroom
Cinnabon
GameStop
posted by griphus at 6:11 AM on November 23, 2011 [26 favorites]


Whereas a website can track a customer who doesn't make a purchase, physical stores have been struggling to perfect this kind of research, Biggar said.

Oh yes, and thank you for reminding me HOW MUCH I FUCKING HATE THAT, TOO.


Well, let's look at the advantages of shopping in person:

1. Staff who are knowledgeable about their stock and available to help you.
2. Relative freedom from invasive tracking
3. The ability to actually look at/try on stuff you are considering

Lower wages and fewer jobs mean that #1 is largely gone; most mall staff can't really tell you anything beyond what you can learn from the packaging. #2 seems to be going away. #3 is a pretty slim reason for me to go to your hateful mall environment to spend money; I can usually get the items I want cheaper on the internet, since the internet store doesn't have to pay rent in your mall.

This is an excellent plan, mall owners!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:12 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


For all those contemplating how to pollute the data: It is fairly trivial to curate the data by taking some samples from the phone movement data that doesn't look like standard behaviour and simply ignore that IMEI forever. Unless you and your flash mob friends start numbering more than, say, 1% of shoppers, you don't stand a chance of diluting the data. On a good day, I'd say the number of people prepared to spend time fighting this might be perhaps 10 at the moment.

And while doing this, you'll be boosting the malls' visitor count, making ad space therein more valuable for the owners.

Fight this in the courts, not on the ground.
posted by brokkr at 6:14 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was just thinking that this is screaming for a flash mob event. Hundreds queueing up for free hearing tests. Groups of 30 or so crowded around every drinking fountain. Completely empty Starbucks.
posted by likeso at 6:15 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aw, brokkr, you're harshing my buzz.
posted by likeso at 6:16 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kinda makes you want to buy a bunch of cheap cell phones, gather some friends, and have some fun. Leave one in the men's room for hours. Toss one in a garbage can. Have a "family" of 6 walk circles around the mall. Perhaps have someone walk back and forth between Starbucks and the bathroom every 5 minutes?

I worked in malls from the mid-80s through the late-90s. None of this is even slightly weird behavior for shoppers in malls.
posted by xingcat at 6:16 AM on November 23, 2011 [13 favorites]


The tracking system, called FootPath Technology, works through a series of antennas positioned throughout the shopping center that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone (similar to a computer's IP address), and tracks its movement throughout the stores.

This is unclear. The unique identification number is the IMEI - this is sent "in the clear" but only once during authentication and never again. If the IMEI is reported stolen, you don't get authenticated, but once the mobile is authenticated, it gets assigned a TMSI (temporary mobile subscriber identity). The TMSI is related to the users IMSI which is stored on the SIM card. It is the TMSI and not the IMEI which is used to identify the mobile during network signaling.

But the TMSI is never sent "in the clear"; It is assigned after authentication/authorisation and encryption. If FootPath is tracking this, they are hacking a private, encrypted communications link. If they are reading the IMEI then they only do it once if you happen to turn your phone ON whilst in the store.
posted by three blind mice at 6:17 AM on November 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


griphus: Cinnabon
GameStop
Cinnabon
GameStop
Cinnabon
GameStop
Victoria's Secret
Bathroom
Cinnabon
GameStop


Sadly none of the malls in Richmond, VA have Cinnabon stores. You'll have to make do with Auntie Anne's or Starbucks.

I avoid Short Pump like the plague on a normal weekend. You couldn't pay me to be in that area between Thanksgiving and New Years and this is just icing on the cake.
posted by bluesapphires at 6:18 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Brokkr: It is fairly trivial to curate the data by taking some samples from the phone movement data that doesn't look like standard behaviour and simply ignore that IMEI forever.

Sounds like a WIN to me.
posted by Skygazer at 6:19 AM on November 23, 2011


Burlington Coat Factory
Toys R Us
Mr. Bulky's
Parking Lot
Mexico
posted by fetamelter at 6:21 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sadly none of the malls in Richmond, VA have Cinnabon stores.

Wait, what?
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:22 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Skygazer: "Sounds like a WIN to me."
I would mark bad data as "ignore", but that's because I'm used to doing stuff like traffic data where you assume that nobody (or at least extremely few people) are trying to pollute the data, but there's a very much higher probability of simply getting bad GPS data.

A stalking/advertising bureau would more likely flag you as "weird/aggressive" (I assume they'll be categorizing people somehow based on behavioural patterns) and treat your data accordingly when evaluating what to do. You'll still be tracked, of course.
posted by brokkr at 6:25 AM on November 23, 2011


That's a T-shirt.

"I was flagged as weird/aggressive on Black Friday at Short Pump".
posted by likeso at 6:28 AM on November 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


At first I thought they would not have a way of relating it to the user - but if you are on a contract phone, presumably the phone ID and your identity can be related? Also, iphones etc have a unique serial number - is this broadcast in the clear?

I'm curious to know also if a phone that is turned off (with the battery in) could also be tracked. I remember hearing that a phone in 'off' mode still connects to a station at some intervals. Is there any truth in this?
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 6:29 AM on November 23, 2011


So... we're all concerned about whether someone knows we publicly walked in public into a public store that anyone could have publicly observed us walking into? What do you think they've been doing with all those credit card tracks you leave every time you buy something?

Personally, I regard my public movements as public data. Have at 'em.
posted by rusty at 6:30 AM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


A stalking/advertising bureau would more likely flag you as "weird/aggressive" (I assume they'll be categorizing people somehow based on behavioural patterns) and treat your data accordingly when evaluating what to do.

WTF? They're stalking me and I'm the one who's weird/aggressive??
posted by Skygazer at 6:31 AM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


running order squabble fest: Sadly none of the malls in Richmond, VA have Cinnabon stores.

Wait, what?


I know. It's horrible. It makes me long for Columbus and Easton Town Center. A couple of the malls do have a faux Cinnabon store and from personal experience, I can say it's really really not good. But there's a Carvel Ice Cream Cake place that has them and it's now around the corner from me. I try to forget it's there for the sake of fitting in my clothes.
posted by bluesapphires at 6:32 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


But the TMSI is never sent "in the clear"; It is assigned after authentication/authorisation and encryption. If FootPath is tracking this, they are hacking a private, encrypted communications link. If they are reading the IMEI then they only do it once if you happen to turn your phone ON whilst in the store.


Their privacy page says that it "works by detecting a randomly generated, frequently changing signal from your mobile phone" and that it "detects only a regularly changing, random number which contains no personal information."





A few other things from that page (take them as you will): posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 6:33 AM on November 23, 2011


Looks like investing in one these babies, hacking the signal strength to and create massive dead marketing-free zones is the way to go then.


Bwahahahaha.
posted by Skygazer at 6:39 AM on November 23, 2011


A singular shopper would be someone who buys, I dunno, eighteen cases of frozen yogurt and a balsa wood model of a schooner.

Oh, Santa, I knew you were getting my letters.
posted by resurrexit at 6:39 AM on November 23, 2011 [14 favorites]


Fight this in the courts, not on the ground.

Enh, soon enough the economy collapses, the whole place becomes Bartertown, and none of this will matter anyway.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:39 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


It tracks a short-lived session id transmitted by the phone. This code changes fairly regularly (hours?). I believe breaking the crypto to associate a session id with a sim card is equivalent to making free calls on the cell network. So the cell phone companies have spent some time making it robust.
posted by ryanrs at 6:41 AM on November 23, 2011


Okay, everybody that goes to one of these malls --- Stand in front of the erotic greeting card section of Spencer's gifts for an hour.
posted by empath at 6:42 AM on November 23, 2011


If walked out the pattern to FUCK YOU, could they read it?
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:42 AM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


There are no risks to privacy, so I don't see why anyone would opt out.

In that case, can we get a copy of the data you collect? You know, for research purposes.
posted by swift at 6:43 AM on November 23, 2011


Yeah, there's probably a hundred apps to do that for you.
posted by ryanrs at 6:44 AM on November 23, 2011


Rusty: Personally, I regard my public movements as public data. Have at 'em.

rusty, have you seen, for example, Minority Report?

Cap. Renault: Enh, soon enough the economy collapses, the whole place becomes Bartertown, and none of this will matter anyway.

That, or we enter Philip Dick's world.
posted by likeso at 6:46 AM on November 23, 2011


This would probably seem like a bigger deal to me if I went to the mall more often, and if I didn't pretty much assume that anything I did with a cell phone or a credit card or inside a mall was already being tracked.

On the other hand, I'm always looking for reasons to not go to the mall, so thanks for that.

On the other other hand, do they still have that place with the pretzels?
posted by box at 6:47 AM on November 23, 2011


BTW, this tracking system is built on top of GNU Radio. It's a pretty neat use of open hardware.
posted by ryanrs at 6:48 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dear quidnunc kid Industries Ltd,

How dare you reveal the full name and address of the odd one out while protecting that hussy's name and address?

Mama Sharma
posted by infini at 6:48 AM on November 23, 2011


"works by detecting a randomly generated, frequently changing signal from your mobile phone"

This makes no sense. If the signal is "randomly generated," how does the system associate it with any particular phone? They must be decoding some aspect of the signal that uniquely identifies the mobile station in order to develop any user metrics.

It is not hard to hack the TMSI, but hack it you must if you are going to read it.
posted by three blind mice at 6:48 AM on November 23, 2011


Apparently they use the TMSI.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 6:51 AM on November 23, 2011


Damn you, box. Now I've craving a fresh pretzel with mustard and an Orange Julius to wash it down.
posted by likeso at 6:51 AM on November 23, 2011


(Consumers can opt out by turning off their phones.)
they can also opt out by not going to those malls
Consumers can opt out by not consuming.
There a few things that come to mind here.

1) This is obviously retail's attempt to compete with online shopping. Online retailers have such an advantage when it comes to identifying individual consumer behaviour, retail is now trying to get in the data game. It's not surprising this is happening. It's surprising this hasn't happened already.

2) The dataset will probably not be as valuable as it seems. People do a lot of things in malls besides shop. People hang around quite a bit. In fact, this may not be used to exploit consumers as much as it will be used to exploit retailers. Perhaps rents adjacent to the non-existant Cinnabon will be higher due a higher volume of footfall.

Sure, they have anecdotal data now and could collect data via video, albeit with expensive effort. This automated data collection will show exactly who goes where and what they do. That kind of information is very valuable when determining store placement and rents. And I imagine retailers would be keen to purchase it, as it will show who their complements/competitors are.

3) Most people don't give a flying (squirrel) about privacy. We are seeing that over and over again. There are a few points where they do -- health, employment, legal records for example. But in general, try to engage the average person about privacy in the digital age, and they think concretely.

"When I go to the mall, I have nothing to hide. People can see me anyway." I've even heard, "It's kind of flattering that they're watching me."

4) The greater implication of this is not data for a mall, but the development of this type of a system without transparency. If it works in the mall, guess where else it will work? Pretty much everywhere else. Libraries. Hospitals. Abortion clinics. Courthouses. Border crossings. Airports. Casinos.

If it's proving too much trouble to get citizens to opt-in to universal surveillance, how about we get them to opt-out via ubiquitous consumer devices. "Mmm," said the man stroking the large albino cat, "genius".

5) The problem isn't the explicit activities related to tracking, but the implicit nature. This time it's in a mall. Next time, it may not be in a mall. Combine that with the fact that most people don't care, and you essentially get the feared barcode on your proverbial iForehead.

6) But frankly, I don't see why one would go to a mall anyway. If there is one massive piece of detritus from late 20th century Americana, the mall must be it. The places are really depressing in terms of experience and meaning. They're like MS-DOS. Perhaps we needed them at one time -- to show the power of collocated retailing -- but we can now design alternative structures and more pleasing experiences.
posted by nickrussell at 6:55 AM on November 23, 2011 [16 favorites]


I think this is creepy and I'd turn off my phone in a mall (not that I ever go to malls). THAT SAID, from an urban planner's perspective, it would be really cool to have foot traffic data for a small area. I can see all kinds of uses for that. Where should we put more crosswalks? Where do people congregate - maybe more street furniture is needed? Knowing which blocks have the most foot traffic could help economic development departments support small business owners (cafés and such).
posted by desjardins at 6:56 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


"4) The greater implication of this is not data for a mall, but the development of this type of a system without transparency. If it works in the mall, guess where else it will work? Pretty much everywhere else. Libraries... "

It'll be a cold cold day in hell when librarians let that happen...
posted by Blake at 6:58 AM on November 23, 2011


Don't just turn off the phone - take the battery out as well, otherwise it ain't off.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:04 AM on November 23, 2011


Okay, so what's the legislation on hacking TSMI? Can we get the ACLU interested?
posted by likeso at 7:05 AM on November 23, 2011


3) Most people don't give a flying (squirrel) about privacy.

Nicely put in regards to the Richmond/Short Pump mall (emphasis and link added).
posted by low_frequency_feline at 7:07 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Most people don't give a flying (squirrel) about privacy


This This This

You could announce to everyone entering the mall that you are tagging them and plan to watch their every movement and very few would care. All this loyalty card crap has proven that the American people will give up all their privacy for a few coupons. I hate the idea but even I can't afford the extra 10% or more to shop without my cards (and I usually pay cash so tracking my credit card purchases doesn't enter the equation.)
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:08 AM on November 23, 2011


But frankly, I don't see why one would go to a mall anyway.

I'm not a big fan of malls, but I find this kind of sentiment to be unnecessarily condescending. There are plenty of times (and places) where shopping in a mall is pretty much the only way to buy certain types of goods that people need to buy, like clothes. Some people go to malls because they love them and love the experience, but plenty of people go to malls because that's where the goods are, and periodically, people do need to buy things.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:09 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


But frankly, I don't see why one would go to a mall anyway.

1. Entertaining small children on rainy days
2. Cinnabon addiction
3. Being unable to buy clothes without trying them on first because clothing sizes are laughably inconsistent across brands/styles.
4. Being a teenager with nowhere else to hang out
posted by emjaybee at 7:11 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


This makes no sense. If the signal is "randomly generated," how does the system associate it with any particular phone? They must be decoding some aspect of the signal that uniquely identifies the mobile station in order to develop any user metrics.

If what ryanrs said above is true that it's a session key that lasts for a few hours, it makes perfect sense. They can't connect your phone to you personally, or recognise you on your next visit. But for every (anonymous) visitor to the mall, they can see things like what paths they take, which shops they visit, where they eat, how long they waited for the toilets, etc. Some analysis could probably pull out more interesting data like whether they're alone, in a couple or moving as a group. All of these data would be anonymous (although I'd bet they could make spookily good guesses about you based on your store choices and/or film choices if there's a cinema in the mall), but are probably worth a *lot* to the people who design mall layouts, decide which shops, restaurants, etc should be clustered together, sell advertising space targeting particular demographics, etc.
posted by metaBugs at 7:11 AM on November 23, 2011


Some details of the patent here.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 7:12 AM on November 23, 2011


THAT SAID, from an urban planner's perspective, it would be really cool to have foot traffic data for a small area...

Yes. Also very interesting in the context of airport design. It's useful to understand how much time people spend doing things and transitioning between areas at the airport to make smart choices about where to place checkpoints and how many, where to put retail/food, etc.

It's left as an exercise to the frequent air traveler to identify airports where this was and wasn't done well.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 7:17 AM on November 23, 2011


But frankly, I don't see why one would go to a mall anyway.

Where I live (Muncie, IN) if you actually have to shop, your choices are either the big boxes (Wal*Mart, Meijer, Target) which are, essentially, mini-malls unto themselves, or the regional mall.

That, or, drive 60 miles to Indianapolis to go to, erm, one of their malls. And I count the new, outdoor "retail marketplaces" as malls.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:18 AM on November 23, 2011


I'm not a big fan of malls, but I find this kind of sentiment to be unnecessarily condescending.
I certainly take that onboard and did wish for an edit button (mathowie) immediately after posting.

It's the Wal-Mart / mainstream paradox. One certainly cannot fault individuals for maximising their budgets by shopping at Wal-Mart, however those short-term gains result in significant long-term primarily negative effects on local communities.

Perhaps it would be better to say, "Whilst I understand the advantages of malls and their primacy in many communities, I wish for more thoughtfully-designed environments for consumers."
posted by nickrussell at 7:23 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


But frankly, I don't see why one would go to a mall anyway

My husband and I are not big on malls but when we go South Points in Durham is our choice (or god, that sounds like an ad.) They have a jewelry repair shop which is great because my husband routinely breaks his watches. A Godiva chocolate shop so that I can pick up my free piece of the month. A place which carries my favorite hair combs (can't find them on line, unfortunately.) And Nordstrom's which is where we sometimes find very nice things on sale.

The only one of those things we could do on line is shop Nordstroms, but we always try our clothes on before buying.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:23 AM on November 23, 2011


"But thanks for sending me to CNN Money, because I got to see the photo accompanying this article."

Hee... "Alternative financing..." Isn't that pensive-looking dude standing in front of a Vegas hotel? ("I gotcher alternative financing right here... c'mon baby! [shakes dice] Daddy need a new start-up!")
posted by Mike D at 7:23 AM on November 23, 2011


That said, I avoid shopping altogether unless I absolutely can't avoid it. Doubly-so if it means I have to venture into a mall.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:24 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


The ukspyblog link SyntacticSugar liked to upthread has an interesting comment which points out that some UK malls have residential properties within their confines which may come under the footpath scanner's range.
posted by werkzeuger at 7:27 AM on November 23, 2011


My guess is this will result in some sort of system where malls start pushing targeted "alerts" at phone users as they pass-by stores. Entering a mall with your phone on will stand as your acceptance of their EULA, meaning you agree to receive the alerts while you are in the mall. The only way to opt-out will be to turn your phone off.

Thorzdad, the first part of that already exists. It's opt-in at the moment, but I can totally see the rest of your comment coming true in a relatively short time.
posted by jbickers at 7:33 AM on November 23, 2011


likeso: I have seen Minority Report. I'm not recalling how it would be relevant though.

nickrussell: Most people don't give a flying (squirrel) about privacy. We are seeing that over and over again. There are a few points where they do -- health, employment, legal records for example. But in general, try to engage the average person about privacy in the digital age, and they think concretely.

All true, but by implication you're saying those people are wrong -- that we shouldn't regard the large parts of our lives that we live in public as public information. I don't really understand this. It seems endemic to technology professionals to believe that privacy is paramount in all times and places -- that everything is, and should be, private by default. I think most people feel like the opposite is true. That most of what we do is public by default, and things are private when we personally or as a society decide it's to everyone's benefit for them to be private. Hence to carved-out categories you mention.

I can't say I think the common person is wrong here. Total privacy gets us what we have on unmoderated anonymous message boards. Some gold, but mostly the worst of what humanity has to offer. Lack of privacy is essentially what constitutes cooperative human society. I'm extremely wary about trying to throw that away and replace it with total privacy.
posted by rusty at 7:36 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


I avoid shopping altogether unless I absolutely can't avoid it. Doubly-so if it means I have to venture into a mall.

I was in Target last month for about ten minutes, but other than that, I can't remember the last time I was in a store that wasn't a grocery store, convenience store, or pharmacy.

Hell is other people with shopper-face.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:41 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


The clever thing about the "opt-out" option (stop your cell phone from sending the signal by turning it off) is that for a lot of people it's not a simple decision to opt out. If you don't go to the mall alone, you may need your cellphone to communicate with the people with whom you are "visiting" the mall - or the people you left at home. You may be technically on call for work. You may be waiting for a call from a recruiter, a doctor, a police officer, an old friend, et cetera.

This isn't an independent binary decision. Even if you were adequately or responsibly informed of what is going on, your decision isn't "Do I want to participate in this study?" it is "Can I reasonably turn off my cell phone for a few hours so that I can choose not to participate in a study that is unannounced, underexplained, valueless to me, but requires that my movements be tracked at fine detail. I have to make a decision between my convenience and dealing with the creeping creepy commercialized surveillance.
posted by julen at 7:41 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


This sounds like a perfect opportunity to pull some pranks.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:55 AM on November 23, 2011


rusty: I have seen Minority Report. I'm not recalling how it would be relevant though.

Quick visual aid for the slippery slope - the literal tracking of eyeballs was a natural.
Cruise's character needs eye transplants to get off the grid.

("Good afternoon, Mr. Tamaguchi! You need a new wristband for your watch! Take a look at these! They're in the store coming up on your left!" or somesuch after the transplant, wasn't it?)
posted by likeso at 7:56 AM on November 23, 2011


"The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to."

"We don't really see you as human," she added, unnecessarily.

I am genuinely surprised to learn this isn't illegal. Clearly I need to ratchet my cynicism level up again.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:01 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think MetaFilter's reflexive pro-privacy stance is a little misplaced here. Consider: posted by christonabike at 8:04 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


I wonder what sort of spatial and temporal resolution they get. My guess both would be pretty poor. How often does a phone try and ping a tower?

Also, it sounds like the system only works with GSM phones, not CDMA as used by Sprint and Verizon.
posted by exogenous at 8:25 AM on November 23, 2011


In the vid. I linked to spatial resolution is a claimed 1-2 metres. Temporal resolution, who knows? It doesn't have to be that fine-grained, maybe to the minute?
posted by SyntacticSugar at 8:33 AM on November 23, 2011


rusty: "All true, but by implication you're saying those people are wrong -- that we shouldn't regard the large parts of our lives that we live in public as public information. I don't really understand this. It seems endemic to technology professionals to believe that privacy is paramount in all times and places -- that everything is, and should be, private by default."
I don't (much) mind other people knowing what I'm doing in public; heck, I don't even have curtains in my bathroom. I have a problem with corporations knowing what I and thousands of other people are doing in public.

Then again, I live in a part of the world where people have more rights than corporations. Still.
posted by brokkr at 8:41 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm having trouble thinking up any seriously nefarious purposes for this data off the top of my head.

Ads and product placement which work to increase your purchases on a subconscious level. This is already done at grocery stores, for example, where the eye-level stuff is the most unhealthy, most over-priced, most processed foods and the least processed is far off at the back of the store. If you are savvy and strong willed you can at least keep this in mind, but for most shoppers the temptations are constant.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:42 AM on November 23, 2011


I don't (much) mind other people knowing what I'm doing in public; heck, I don't even have curtains in my bathroom. I have a problem with corporations knowing what I and thousands of other people are doing in public.

If you owned a store and you noticed that some item you stocked seemed to be selling less well than you thought it ought to would you consider it improper to observe if your customers were visiting that part of the store less frequently than other parts of the store? Would you consider it a violation of their privacy to try reorganizing your store and observing if traffic patterns changed in response?

I'm with rusty on this: if I walk out into a public space, my movements are available for your observation. If I want to go out into a public space and watch how people interact with it, that's my right. If someone else wants to watch how I interact with it, that's their right.

And the slippery slope fallacy is called a fallacy for a reason.
posted by yoink at 8:48 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Boycott Black Friday. Shop local only on Saturdays.
posted by spitbull at 8:56 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


It'll be a cold cold day in hell when librarians let that happen...

Sadly, it will be a much, much warmer day when the libraries' funding agencies impose it on them, should they decide to do so....

3) Most people don't give a flying (squirrel) about privacy.

I talk to undergraduates about this a lot, and, as far as I can tell, this piece of received wisdom is just not true. People don't think about privacy, and they don't like to wrestle with the ideas of what they need to do and/or give up to maintain their privacy, but they are generally shocked and dismayed when they realize how much data is being collected on them and how that data is being used. I think "Most people feel helpless in the face of complicated and largely hidden efforts to gather data on them" is a more accurate statement.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:58 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe the problem is that you kind of expect to be anonymous in crowds, and this kind of tech, combined with the ubiquity of mobiles, comes as a shock to the system for all the reassurances that the data collected is anonymous.
Not as though those assurances haven't proven to be empty before.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 9:04 AM on November 23, 2011


if I walk out into a public space, my movements are available for your observation.

There's observation, and then there's using your own property to inform corporations on your movements. Would you have a problem if mall operators simply attached a tracking transmitter to your person as you walked through the door?
posted by Thorzdad at 9:16 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


yoink: "If you owned a store and you noticed that some item you stocked seemed to be selling less well than you thought it ought to would you consider it improper to observe if your customers were visiting that part of the store less frequently than other parts of the store? Would you consider it a violation of their privacy to try reorganizing your store and observing if traffic patterns changed in response?"
Direct observation for a specific purpose, no, I don't have a problem with that. But unlike your strawman here, we are talking about mass surveillance of every person with a mobile phone (that means some 90 percent of the population). This data will almost certainly - despite all assurances - find its way legally or by theft to other companies and be used for applications you didn't expect. And it isn't being collected in response to a specific problem, rather, it is surveillance for surveillance's sake and then let's see what we can use it for afterwards.

This will also be used to track kids with mobile phones (since they can't tell the age of the owner). While you may create a thin legal veneer by signposting the entrance ("by entering, you accept ..."), are minors at all allowed to enter this contract with the surveillance company? (What would happen if employees stalked nine year old girls around the mall?)
posted by brokkr at 9:17 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kinda makes you want to buy a bunch of cheap cell phones, gather some friends, and have some fun. Leave one in the men's room for hours. Toss one in a garbage can. Have a "family" of 6 walk circles around the mall. Perhaps have someone walk back and forth between Starbucks and the bathroom every 5 minutes?

I've been re-watching The Wire and am on season 3. Reading this immediately made me imagine Kima and Bubbs hanging out, watching shoppers toss one "burner" after another on the food court floor.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:23 AM on November 23, 2011


And the slippery slope fallacy is called a fallacy for a reason.

Some slopes are more slippery than others. As has been noted on this thread, there are a number of things about this kind of privatized mass surveillance that make it really troubling to people who are concerned about privacy. There doesn't seem to me to be a compelling reason to believe that this sort of tracking technology (which as noted in the article we already for granted on the Internet, and which also bothers me a lot depending on my mood) won't be used and abused in an increasing number of public and private spaces.

There was a great and chilling science fiction short story a few years ago (can't remember the title or author) about private detectives using commercially available and anonymized consumer data to profile and track subjects. With more computing power and better data mining techniques being developed all the time, it seems plausible that individual tracking based on very fine-grained anonymized data could become a real privacy concern in the near future.

The amoral data nerd in me is very excited about the sorts of patterns that will be discovered using these techniques.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:32 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


If walked out the pattern to FUCK YOU, could they read it?

Sure, but if you marched out in that formation, wearing uniforms and playing "On Wisconsin" with full brass accompaniment, you'd make your point even better.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:47 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's observation, and then there's using your own property to inform corporations on your movements. Would you have a problem if mall operators simply attached a tracking transmitter to your person as you walked through the door?

Yes, I would have a problem with them attaching a tracking transmitter to me. As they're not talking about doing that, I don't see the relevance. As for "using my own property"--if they paid some college kid to follow random people around with a clipboard they'd be using their eyes to observe my own personal body. OMG!! Won't somebody think of the children???

This will also be used to track kids with mobile phones (since they can't tell the age of the owner). While you may create a thin legal veneer by signposting the entrance ("by entering, you accept ..."), are minors at all allowed to enter this contract with the surveillance company? (What would happen if employees stalked nine year old girls around the mall?)

Oh look. Some is thinking of the children. Sigh.

And while we're looking at ridiculously specious arguments:

Direct observation for a specific purpose, no, I don't have a problem with that. But unlike your strawman here, we are talking about mass surveillance of every person with a mobile phone (that means some 90 percent of the population).

No, we're talking about observing traffic patterns in a couple of malls. That's actually not the same thing as "mass surveillance of every person with a mobile phone." "Surveillance" implies that individual users can be tracked and their data tied to a specific person's identity. That, certainly, would be objectionable. That is not what is being proposed here.
posted by yoink at 9:51 AM on November 23, 2011


Do police use this to track people's movements yet? There's no doubt in my mind that they will.
posted by desjardins at 10:02 AM on November 23, 2011


"It's important for shoppers to realize this sort of data is being collected anyway," Biggar said.

Resistance is futile, Citizen-Consumer! However, you still have options! Your invasion of privacy comes with your choice of holiday scents: Long Gone Pine Forest, Half Drunk Eggnog, or Cranberry Despair.
posted by scody at 10:03 AM on November 23, 2011


Yes, I would have a problem with them attaching a tracking transmitter to me. As they're not talking about doing that, I don't see the relevance.

No. They're being far less honest about their intentions and, instead, using your own private property to track you. If you don't (or refuse to) see the relevance, I can't help you.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:18 AM on November 23, 2011


Do police use this to track people's movements yet? There's no doubt in my mind that they will.

Answer is yes. Here in the Netherlands, it is illegal. Answer is still yes.
posted by likeso at 10:32 AM on November 23, 2011


I hate the idea but even I can't afford the extra 10% or more to shop without my cards (and I usually pay cash so tracking my credit card purchases doesn't enter the equation.)

Why not just give them a fake name like a lot of people do?
I mean, the Albertsons people happily thank Mr. Kent when I buy groceries, while the Safeway checkers are glad to have Mr. Wayne as a customer...

Failing that, I'll note that Jenny's number has worked in every store I've ever tried it in (handy when you travel outside your normal radius of stores).
posted by madajb at 10:40 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


The grocery store required my ID to get a savings card.
posted by desjardins at 10:43 AM on November 23, 2011


Which, you know, I don't mind so much if my shopping habits are tracked if I get something out of it. Google tracks all kinds of shit, but I have free email, a great browser and lots of other stuff. The tradeoff is not worth it to a lot of people, and I respect that, but at least there is a tradeoff. No one benefits from cell phone tracking except marketers, and apparently Dutch police.
posted by desjardins at 10:45 AM on November 23, 2011


I guess there's one advantage to having a phone with a crappy battery that I'm always trying to save by keeping the phone off.
posted by NorthernLite at 10:48 AM on November 23, 2011


I saw some demos of a product for tracking people as they moved through an airport. Every inch of the target area was covered by calibrated security cameras, and the software could figure out when a person moved from the area covered by one camera to the next. A security guard could push a button to "follow" a person anywhere they go. The software could even determine if the person left an item behind (like luggage containing a bomb).

It was an incredibly impressive demo. There are already some similar things in retail applications (Target can tell how many people are lingering at a particular product display), but not tracking of individual people throughout the store. Within a decade or so it will be everywhere, and without the privacy ruckus of cell phone tracking.
posted by miyabo at 10:54 AM on November 23, 2011


Answer is yes. Here in the Netherlands, it is illegal. Answer is still yes.

Cite?

Because if that's true then it's not true that this can't be tied to a particular individual's identity. So either you're talking about the Dutch police using a different system, or you have proof that the claims in the linked article are false.
posted by yoink at 10:55 AM on November 23, 2011


I saw some demos of a product for tracking people as they moved through an airport.

Were they using gait recognition?
posted by yoink at 10:56 AM on November 23, 2011


Boycott Black Friday. Shop local only on Saturdays.

You know, this argument annoys the shit out of me, there are a lot of places in the US where there very few, if any, local choices. What do those of us in these areas, do?
posted by SuzySmith at 11:01 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


No they were not. Just blob tracking and a motion model that could predict that if a person is moving at 1 m/s in camera 1, it is very likely to continue moving at 1 m/s in camera 2 (after calibrating the image into real coordinate space).
posted by miyabo at 11:02 AM on November 23, 2011


A singular shopper would be someone who buys, I dunno, eighteen cases of frozen yogurt and a balsa wood model of a schooner.

Or just a shopper that's noninvertible.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:04 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


No. They're being far less honest about their intentions and, instead, using your own private property to track you. If you don't (or refuse to) see the relevance, I can't help you.

Worse than that. The system must be sending out broadcast signals that cause mobiles within its range to respond. It pretends to be a legit base station. So it's not just listening/sniffing, it's pinging you and making your phone transmit something back to them. They are actually using your device not just to track you, but as part of their system. They don't need to install cameras because you provide the network of sensors - rent free.

And you are providing the energy. More transmissions means less battery life, but since you're paying for it, they don't care.

This is awesome really. If it's not illegal on any number of levels, it should be.
posted by three blind mice at 11:04 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


No they were not. Just blob tracking and a motion model that could predict that if a person is moving at 1 m/s in camera 1, it is very likely to continue moving at 1 m/s in camera 2 (after calibrating the image into real coordinate space).

Interesting. So to track a particular individual you have to eyeball them, tag them as "suspicious" and then the system just seamlessly tracks that moving object. I wonder how easy it would be defeat by, say, entering a very tight huddle of people and then quickly rotating and dispersing?

If that's how it works, it doesn't sound all that dystopian. It seems reasonable that security in an airport should be able to track potentially suspicious individuals based on observed behavior. Of course, some jackass is going to be found using it to track women wearing low-cut blouses to find a really good down-blouse angle--etc.
posted by yoink at 11:22 AM on November 23, 2011


And you are providing the energy. More transmissions means less battery life, but since you're paying for it, they don't care.

It's worse than you think. They steal the very body heat your body generates and gain a corresponding saving in heating costs! It's probably best just to wrap yourself entirely in tinfoil and hide under your bed for the (short) remainder of your life.
posted by yoink at 11:23 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is why I love Metafilter - in its own way, it can shock me as much as /b/.

I thought I was a paranoid privacy nut and this is... completely untroubling. Like, not even a little bit. Even if it wasn't anonymous, I wouldn't care. If I had a problem with it, I'd shrug and shop online. Which reveals way more about me to the company I buy from, my ISP, and my bank than what stores my phone wandered past.
posted by codswallop at 11:24 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know, this argument annoys the shit out of me, there are a lot of places in the US where there very few, if any, local choices. What do those of us in these areas, do?

I'm pretty sure "shop local only on Saturdays" was a sarcastic comment. If it's important to shop local, assuming it's possible, why not do it every day?
posted by desjardins at 11:28 AM on November 23, 2011


it doesn't sound all that dystopian

Each system is just a little bit more dystopian than the last, though.

The iPass is already routinely used in divorce cases to prove that one party had an affair, but of course if you know that you can avoid taking toll roads to have a fling. Same with public transit passes.

But imagine if every place that has a security camera now had a people tracking with long-term storage (perhaps associating people with names from credit card purchases). It would be practically impossible to go out in public with another person and have it not be recorded in a searchable database somewhere. Even if that database is originally intended only for marketing, it will be subpoenable for many other uses.
posted by miyabo at 11:58 AM on November 23, 2011


Sounds like time for some Flash Mob Fractal Shopping.

Gather a large group. Everyone hands their unpowered phone one person to the right and takes an evenly distributed 'starting store location'. Once in place, at a designated time, all phones power on and shoppers move at matched, steady pace one store clockwise, wait 2 minutes and repeat all the way around the mall. Now counter clockwise everyone!

Next week we call the management company and politely request a graph.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:59 AM on November 23, 2011


> ... your only choice is to not use your equipment.

"Keep your equipment in your pants, buddy"

or your purse...
posted by mmrtnt at 12:11 PM on November 23, 2011


> every 20-25 minutes i will convulse violently for a period of not less than sixty seconds.

I think you had something up until this.

This will make them think you're a performance artist or a busker and ask you to leave.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:21 PM on November 23, 2011


But imagine if every place that has a security camera now had a people tracking with long-term storage (perhaps associating people with names from credit card purchases). It would be practically impossible to go out in public with another person and have it not be recorded in a searchable database somewhere. Even if that database is originally intended only for marketing, it will be subpoenable for many other uses.

Unless the system is using something like gait recognition then what you described couldn't be used for this. It's not capable of automagically associating names/identities with everyone who moves through the surveilled space. Nor would it be retroactively searchable--at least, not any more than any currently existing security cam system.

If it's using something like gait or face recognition, then we have a more serious problem--because then you can input a face or gait characteristics and run a search on stored data to see what you find. If it simply seamlessly tracks someone that you have actively directed it to track then that's just a more efficient way of doing something that already gets done without troubling us at all.
posted by yoink at 12:25 PM on November 23, 2011


P.S. I'm not sure that "it makes it hard for me to screw around on my spouse without getting caught" is the gold standard for "Orwellian intrusion in to our private lives."
posted by yoink at 12:27 PM on November 23, 2011


> Their privacy page says that it "works by detecting a randomly generated, frequently changing signal from your mobile phone" and that it "detects only a regularly changing, random number which contains no personal information."

Perhaps they only intend to track people who are using their phones?
posted by mmrtnt at 12:31 PM on November 23, 2011


It would be awesome to mount a phone to a quadcopter and fly it around the mall.
posted by desjardins at 12:39 PM on November 23, 2011


> But frankly, I don't see why one would go to a mall anyway. posted by mmrtnt at 12:42 PM on November 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


> It would be awesome to mount a phone fly a quadcopter and fly it around the mall.

This has got to be way up there on the "things worth spending the night in jail for" list.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:45 PM on November 23, 2011


I think tracking people who are screwing around on their spouses is a pretty good example of Orwellian intrusion into private life. It's easy for proponents of these technologies to come up with actions that are illegal (like terrorism), or that we don't care about exposing (like shopping). An affair is the best example I come up with of something many people do, most of them want to keep secret, and yet is perfectly legal. Plus, there are actual public examples of tracking data from affairs harming specific people (unlike something like NSA phone wiretaps).
posted by miyabo at 12:50 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


> There's no public thoroughfare. No right of assembly. No freedom to speak.

Not the case in California. A facility with the "social congregation attributes of the multi-tenant shopping center" (but not a standalone big box like Costco) can't restrict free speech. Though it's been expected to be overturned, it was re-affirmed again as late as 2010.
posted by morganw at 12:55 PM on November 23, 2011


Worse than that. The system must be sending out broadcast signals that cause mobiles within its range to respond. It pretends to be a legit base station. So it's not just listening/sniffing, it's pinging you and making your phone transmit something back to them. They are actually using your device not just to track you, but as part of their system. They don't need to install cameras because you provide the network of sensors - rent free.

And you are providing the energy. More transmissions means less battery life, but since you're paying for it, they don't care.


This demo video says that it works passively.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 1:02 PM on November 23, 2011


Shopping in the Future

"Why yes, I was looking for..."

"Right this way? Why thank..."

"What, you have it in my size?"

"...and you've deducted the money from my account?"

"What? My husband thought it made me look fat??? But..."

"And you're taking it back because I'm returning it..."

"And I bought it on sale, so all I get is a store credit?"

"Um. Wow. That sure was, uh, convenient..."
posted by mmrtnt at 1:03 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


An affair is the best example I come up with of something many people do, most of them want to keep secret, and yet is perfectly legal.

How does a private divorce case have anything to do with "legality"? If you happen to know that your spouse stayed at a Howard Johnson's with his/her lover and you subpoena their security cams to prove that fact I don't see how that has anything to do--at all--with a looming police state or whatever it is that you're afraid of.

As with almost all privacy paranoia threads I see an awful lot of "OMG, OMG, Big Brother!!!" and precious little "here's how this can actually affect you negatively in ways you have a reason to be concerned about."
posted by yoink at 1:08 PM on November 23, 2011


The system must be sending out broadcast signals that cause mobiles within its range to respond. It pretends to be a legit base station.

Actually no -- this has already been explained above, they eavesdrop on the phone's conversation with the base station. This particular approach is like slapping a label on your back as you enter the mall (and then removing it as you exit). They can track a person's movements, but they can't connect that number on your back with your identity. The next time you go to the mall you get a different number on your back. Also, I bet they can't distinguish between people standing/walking together.

I've always wondered why they don't do something like this for highway traffic analysis. Want to know how many cars are in section X of the freeway, and how fast it's moving? Presto!

Of course if that receiver network is big enough -- say run by a city instead of a mall -- a cop following you can match that number on your back with your license plate.
posted by phliar at 1:15 PM on November 23, 2011


I've always wondered why they don't do something like this for highway traffic analysis. Want to know how many cars are in section X of the freeway, and how fast it's moving? Presto!

There are already automated traffic counters that don't use phone signals.

And there are opt-in networks that do use phone (GPS) signals.
posted by desjardins at 1:25 PM on November 23, 2011


Another article about crowdsourced traffic via phone signals - this time from Apple
posted by desjardins at 1:26 PM on November 23, 2011


There are opt-in networks that do use phone (GPS) signals

Opt-in? I bet 99% of the people sending location data to Google have no idea it's happening. There is a dialog box that shows up when you install, but it's quite confusingly worded, and if you click "No" it won't let you use the GPS at all. Android will actually randomly turn the GPS on (reducing battery life) just to provide little snippets of location data to the Goog. It's really amazing what they get away with.
posted by miyabo at 1:34 PM on November 23, 2011


Huh. On my iPhone 4s, if I have location services turned off, when I go to use maps I get the following "Turn On Location Service to Allow 'Maps' to Determine Your Location." Seems pretty clear to me - how would Google know where I was if my phone didn't tell them? A "regular" GPS doesn't do this (send data), but it also doesn't update maps on the fly.
posted by desjardins at 1:48 PM on November 23, 2011


Yes, the privacy concern is certainly greater on Android, where you never really know if your location is tracked or not (unless you turn off GPS). Even on the iPhone, there's no way to opt-out of your data being used for traffic analysis.
posted by miyabo at 2:07 PM on November 23, 2011


This thread has made two things painfully clear:

1. Legislation needs to be passed that makes this sort of passive intrusive data aggregation that activates your phone in some way and burgles your cell phone battery power, and transmission and receiving bandwidth, as well as, your consumer movements (although we all understand, I hope that, much more information than that will be harnessed on the down low, because it always is, and anyone who's been on the back end of any large scale electronic interaction knows what BS the "official" privacy policy is in most cases, and how little respect the system administrators really have for that...) needs to be Opt-IN only. With ginormous fines for any violation of that. Honestly, I'm astonished ANY organization would have the presumption to think that it could be otherwise. Honetly. WTF is up with that??

2. I need to invest in whoever owns Cinnabon, becomes obviously they're using cocaine as an ingredient in their baked goods.
posted by Skygazer at 7:45 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


They're probably just using bluetooth. You can't reliably track phones using the TSMI in 3G phones or the IMEI. It's also far too much of a hassle to track by guessing trajectories, I doubt they can achieve the resolution necessary at a reasonable price.

From their privacy page:
FootPath™ works by detecting a randomly generated, frequently changing signal from your mobile phone. This random signal is detected by a number of our units within the premises.
Bluetooth uses Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum, that sounds exactly what they're describing, GSM/CDMA frequencies aren't exactly random. They probably have devices that do polling of bluetooth devices. You can do this for crazy cheap, build an Arduino board with bluetooth and wifi, you can build hundreds of these for tens of thousands of dollars easy. Most bluetooth devices broadcast their MAC address when polled, so you have a unique identifier.

If this is the case (again, this is just an educated guess), you can avoid this type of tracking by turning off bluetooth.

They're probably being a bit evasive with the tech they're using because any reasonably competent engineer that knows how to hack with Arduino boards can probably deploy for far less than what they're charging malls.
posted by amuseDetachment at 11:48 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Next time, buy a phone with a switch to turn the power off. Or buy a closing conductive metal box to slip it into.

You bought into the game. After years of warnings, you ought to know what the game is. Everyone can follow you everywhere. Even when you're outside the mall. You're in public, you have "no reasonable expectation of privacy", they'll gladly tell you.

If you don't like it, change your phone consumption pattern.
posted by Twang at 1:08 AM on November 24, 2011


yoink: Oh look. Some is thinking of the children. Sigh.
Pardon me, but one of the defenses was that is was opt-in. I am curious to know how minors can enter this contract. But thanks for just hand-waving that away condescendingly instead of answering the question, it sure makes me feel better about this technology.
No, we're talking about observing traffic patterns in a couple of malls. That's actually not the same thing as "mass surveillance of every person with a mobile phone." "Surveillance" implies that individual users can be tracked and their data tied to a specific person's identity. That, certainly, would be objectionable. That is not what is being proposed here.
If you think this will be limited to malls, I have an Eiffel tower I'd like to sell to you.

And I still haven't seen any convincing arguments as to the benefit to the persons being tracked. Why should I not object to this? What do I gain from this?
posted by brokkr at 1:31 AM on November 24, 2011


2. I need to invest in whoever owns Cinnabon, becomes obviously they're using cocaine as an ingredient in their baked goods.

I bake Heavenly Cinnamon Buns and sometimes give them to friends and family and I have to tell you, people pester me for them ALL THE TIME. I have often thought that if I was really in need of some money I would rent some space at the local industry kitchen and sell them at the Farmer's Market. There is something about the soft fluffy bun, cinnamon, and icing that is like cat nip for humans.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:11 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the Bush/Obama era of warrantless wiretapping, any data a corporation collects also belongs to the government, and you don't get to decide whether the government finds you interesting or not.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:20 AM on November 24, 2011


Yoink: `As with almost all privacy paranoia threads I see an awful lot of "OMG, OMG, Big Brother!!!" and precious little "here's how this can actually affect you negatively in ways you have a reason to be concerned about."'

It isn't easy to explain the value of privacy.

I can remember the internet back when people used to post very personal things under their real names. There was no Google keeping a record of what you wrote, and no employer was likely to check what you'd been writing online. It was a whole different culture, and I wouldn't know how to explain the difference to someone who hadn't experienced it

So it's hard to explain why there shouldn't be a tracking database of where I go, available to whomever pays for it. If my employer wants to be sure that I was really sick in bed on my last sick day, instead of wandering through the shopping mall for a couple of hours, what difference would it make if that information is available for sale? We'll just have a culture of people who are constantly self-conscious, because our smallest movements are open to scrutiny. Really though, there are drugs to control anxiety, so what's the problem?
posted by Net Prophet at 2:28 PM on November 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Cinnabon.
posted by rusty at 8:10 AM on November 26, 2011


Ars Technica: We're watching
posted by XMLicious at 12:54 AM on November 27, 2011


9 Reasons Wired Readers Should Wear Tinfoil Hats
posted by infini at 4:21 AM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Malls have scrapped plans to track shoppers by cell phones after Sen. Charles Schumer spoke out about having it be an opt-in for shoppers.
posted by lilkeith07 at 1:05 PM on November 28, 2011


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