Demand Regulation of Retail Stores Tracking Customers’ Smartphones

Target: Mignon Clyburn, Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission

Goal: Regulate the way retail stores track customers’ smartphones

A few months ago, customers who walked into a Nordstrom and had their smartphones on were most likely being tracked throughout the store. How much time was spent in the shoe department, for example, or how long it took for a customer to look at a sweater before actually buying it, was information readily available to retailers thanks to how smartphones connect to Wifi, a signal which can be followed with the help of sophisticated surveillance cameras. Nordstrom has since stated that its tracking program is now over, but other retailers still continue to track customers without their authorization. Please call for the regulation of retailers’ access to consumers’ smartphone data.

Within a 10-foot radius, Wifi antennas can pinpoint the location of a patron inside a store. This technology also allows stores like Family Dollar, Benetton, and Warby Parker to recognize returning customers, due to the unique identifiers within smartphones that are used to connect to Wifi networks. While these tracking practices may be comparable to online retailers’ usage of cookies, in real life it can be potentially invasive. John Soma, executive director of the University of Denver Privacy Foundation, asked these legitimate questions, “What are they going to do with that data? Are they going to aggregate it? Are they going to sell it to ‘affiliates’? We just don’t know. That’s what’s so troubling to me.”

While Nordstrom claims that all of the customer tracking they conducted was anonymous, customers should reserve the right to deny retailers access to their physical movements within a store, along with any personal data reaped from their smartphones. Please take action and demand that the Federal Communications Commission do their part for consumer protection and regulate the tracking practices of retail stores.

PETITION LETTER:

Dear Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission Mignon Clyburn,

As head of a commission that has the responsibility of protecting the rights of consumers, I ask that regulation be implemented on the way that retail stores track customers using their smartphones. Retailers, without authorization, now use technology to follow the Wifi signal on customers’ smartphones. Since each phone can be distinctly identified via the code used to connect to Wifi antennas, the shopping habits of customers can be unwittingly recognized every time they walk into a store.

While it is commendable that Nordstrom let customers know it was tracking their physical movements while shopping, customers in the first place should be able to opt out of unauthorized smartphone tracking. Nordstrom claims that it ended the tracking program this past May because of the number of customer complaints it received.

There are apps like Placed, in which individuals can trade personal information like income, age, sex, and authorization to be tracked over Wifi, GPS, among other networks, for coupons and prepaid gift cards. The difference between apps like these and retailers tracking the movements of customers through their Wifi connection is authorization. If companies are going to engage in this type of surveillance they should have to obtain permission from shoppers, and consumers should be able to control what data from their smartphones retailers are allowed to see. Please regulate retailers’ troublesome tracking operations to ensure that customers’ personal information will not be compromised.

Sincerely,

[Your Name Here]

Photo Credit: Kimco Realty

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