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Malls Plan to Track Shoppers' Cell Phones

| by Michael Allen

From Black Friday to New Year's Day, two U.S. malls - Promenade Temecula in Southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. - will track shoppers' movements by monitoring the signals from their cell phones.

While U.S. malls have long tracked how crowds move throughout their stores, this is the first time they've used cell phones.

The management company of both malls, Forest City Commercial Management, claims that the  personal data is not being tracked.

"We won't be looking at singular shoppers," says Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City. "The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to."

The company is preemptively notifying customers by hanging small signs around the shopping centers (picture below). Consumers can opt out by turning off their phones. The stores claim they are conducting an "anonymous survey," leaving out the "tracking" language.

Through this signage at Promenade Temecula, the mall is notifying shoppers that their phones may be tracked as they move throughout the premises.

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.

Forest City Commercial Management claims that they can't take photos or collect data on what shoppers have purchased (actually they can with credit cards). Forest City Commercial Management claims it won't collect any personal details associated with the ID, like the user's name or phone number.

"We don't need to know who it is and we don't need to know anyone's cell phone number, nor do we want that," Shriver-Engdahl said. "It's just not invasive of privacy. There are no risks to privacy, so I don't see why anyone would opt out."

But some industry analysts worry about the broader implications of this kind of technology.

"Most of this information is harmless and nobody ever does anything nefarious with it," said Sucharita Mulpuru, retail analyst at Forrester Research. "But the reality is, what happens when you start having hackers potentially having access to this information and being able to track your movements?"

Last year, hackers hit AT&T, exposing the unique ID numbers and e-mail addresses of more than 100,000 iPad 3G owners.

"I'm sure as more people get more cell phones, it's probably inevitable that it will continue as a resource," Mulpuru said. "But I think the future is going to have to be opt in, not opt out."

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