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Stop stores and airports from tracking your movements

Stop stores and airports from tracking your movements
photo courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK

Did you know that for several months Wal-Mart tested a facial recognition system that can pick an individual out of a crowd and track them automatically through a store? It's true. Wal-Mart was mainly using the system to spot known shoplifters, but I'm sure you can think of more worrying purposes.

Facial recognition is one of many technologies that brick-and-mortar retailers are testing to get real-time data on their customers. Online stores can see exactly what products and ads a user looks at, but offline retailers traditionally only know what people buy. They want to change that so they can maximize their marketing and profits.

How retailers track you

While facial recognition is still in limited use, many retailers, and other locations with a lot of traffic like airports, are using Mobile Location Analytics to track your exact location. For example, an airport knows how much time you spent in a shop, moving through security or at the baggage claim. A store knows when you move from one department to another, or even linger in a certain aisle. How do they do this?

MLA uses the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in your smartphone or tablet. Every mobile gadget has a unique 12-digit hardware identifier called a MAC address that it broadcasts via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. As your gadget comes in range of the various Wi-Fi routers and Bluetooth hubs scattered around a store or airport, the MLA system picks up your MAC address.

Companies collect this information over time and use it to track traffic flow, line wait times, popular products or aisles, tweak employee work schedule and more. But could they use the information to do something more?

The good news is that on its own, your gadget's MAC address tells the store nothing about you. Your name, email and phone number aren't transmitted. At most, it might be able to figure out what manufacturer made your phone.

Most of the companies that handle this tracking have also signed agreements that they won't try to tie your MAC address to any other information they might have about you. Of course, those agreements are voluntary and there are ways a company could identify you if it wanted.

Next page: How a company could learn your identity

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