It seems every day we are getting closer to a Minority Report reality. This morning the New York Times is reporting on a new trend in retail, tracking your cell phone. The real nugget is that it is much more than that. Are we going to rise up against this perceived intrusion or are we slowly being desensitized for greater and greater privacy intrusions much like my friend the frog in the boiling water? While I want to talk about the purported subject of the New York Times article first, there is more that is troubling there.
Let’s talk first about the lead in to the article – WiFi tracking. Released in early 2012, Navizon’s Indoor Triangulation System (ITS) takes advantage of a ‘feature’ all of us smartphone wielding users provide. That feature is our inability to turn off WiFi on our device. The WiFi radio on our mobile still works even if not connected to an access point, meaning that systems like Navizon’s can pinpoint us even when we are not connected to anything.
The whitepaper that Navizon published focuses primarily on practical security uses for the technology. Such as users walking into a restricted location in your building. But the stalking feature is the most problematic for me. I don’t subscribe to Judge Brown’s analysis that by not turning off my device I am giving up my presumption of privacy. I think what this system does is stalking, plain and simple. With one caveat. Am I being put on notice of this when I enter into a space? Would you turn around if the supermarket told you they were tracking your movements when you entered?
The problem here is the value exchange. The store gets all the value from this system. I get nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is my issue. While some may analogize this to cookies for website access, I don’t think it is the same. I am accessing the store with my feet, not with my mobile device. What right does that give someone to query my mobile device, without my knowledge. By leaving my WiFi on, I am not consenting to this. By the way, my WiFi radio is unique in the world so I can be differentiated from everyone else in that store. So the argument that I am just tracking anonymous users is faulty on its face, if not in its practical implementation.
If you think this system is expensive, it is not. A flat fee of $250 per month and and additional $25 per sensing node, is all it takes to set this system up. As the commentary in Digital Trends by Francis Bea points out, “there’s something unnerving about the feeling that someone is watching us, which tends to send chills down our spines.”
The bigger problem is how easy it is to not invade the privacy of my phone and still be creepy. Companies like RetailNext uses video surveillance to do much of what Navizon does. Their cameras watch as consumers walk around a retail location and provide analytics to the store operators to better operate their store. I don’t know how many of the stores that I have patronized use this technology. I can imagine that it is more than one, and I have never been apprised that it was happening.
When we enter into places where photos of us may be taken and used by others, such as sporting stadiums, we are advised of such. We are told “by entering these premises you agree to video surveillance, or to the use of your image in any manner.” This is how your picture at that football game can be used on promotional materials for the next season.
I can imagine that this type of consumer stalking has been going on for many, many years. It wasn’t that long after the invention of the camera to be honest. Technology has just made it so much easier to do it. More troubling is the combination of that information with other technical information, and with tracking from other stores. Herein lies why we are all concerned about Big Data. That things that couldn’t be combined before can now be combined. Possibly in ways that we would never have thought to be ok. Or if we had known, it would have altered our behavior.
Maybe Europe is Right
This trend is troubling. I think we are the frog in the pot of water. Every day the heat is turned up alittle more until it is boiling. That seems to be the case. We get ok with a little privacy invasion, and the next thing happens. And then the next thing. Europe has long held that the right to privacy (whatever that means to you) is a basic, fundamental human right (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Such a position makes it abit harder to use private information in ways that I had not intended when I gave it up. Given this increasing use of my information, maybe that is the better thing for all of us.