Stop stores and airports from tracking your
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
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
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
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.
COMPANY COULD LEARN YOUR IDENTITY
One way is by using
in-store beacons. These beacons use Wi-Fi,
Bluetooth or Near-Field Communication to connect with your phone and send you
deals on products you're walking past. To receive these deals, however, you
have to be running the store's app, or have signed up to receive them. So, there's
no real privacy concern.
Then there's facial recognition, as we talked about earlier. If
a company knows your gadget's location, it's a simple matter to point a camera
at you. Granted, most facial recognition systems require a photo on file to
make a match. However, if a company has your name and email address, it's a
short leap to get your profile picture from Facebook and spot you as you walk
into the store. Of course, that's unlikely for the foreseeable future because
of the backlash it would cause.
However, it doesn't have to be the store that's tracking
you. If law enforcement was doing an investigation and got your gadget,
they could technically subpoena records from MLA companies for the gadget's MAC
address and learn your movements. Or if the MAC address records were lost in a
data breach, I'm sure hackers could find some use for them.
TO STOP THE TRACKING
The Future of Privacy Forum has set up a site called Smart Store Privacy.
If you go there, you can put in your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth MAC addresses and it
will tell participating tracking companies (there are 12 signed on at the
moment) not to track those addresses. You don't have to give any other information.
Finding your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth MAC addresses is a little tricky depending on
your gadget. Here are some general instructions.
For Apple gadgets, go to Settings>>General>>About
and look under Wi-Fi Address and Bluetooth. You're looking for a 12-digit
number like 91:17:7B:82:C2:A5 or 91-17-7B-82-C2-A5. It should be clearly
labeled. If you don't see an address, you should turn on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
and then check again.
Note:If you're using an Apple gadget running iOS
8 or higher, it changes its MAC address every time it connects to a Wi-Fi or
Bluetooth hotspot. So, a store won't be able to track you because it will look
like a new gadget every time.
For Android gadgets, every phone manufacturer has things set up
a little differently. First, make sure Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are turned on. Then
go to Settings>>About Phone, or Settings>>About Tablet. It might be
under Hardware Information or Status. If you can't find it, check your gadget's
manual for the precise location.
For Wi-Fi, go to
Look in the MAC field. Wi-Fi needs to be on for this to work.
For Bluetooth, go to
and look under Address. Bluetooth needs to be on for the address to show up.
For Wi-Fi, go to
Setup>>Options>>Device>>Device and Status Information, and
look under the WLAN MAC heading.
On Blackberry gadgets running OS 5 or earlier, go to
Options>>Status and look under WLAN MAC.
For getting the Bluetooth address, go to
Connections>>Bluetooth>>Properties to find the MAC address.
Of course, there are tracking companies out there not signed up
with Smart Store Privacy. To totally avoid tracking, you'll have to turn off
your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth before entering a store. That keeps your MAC address
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