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Customer Beware: You Are Being Tracked

From CCTV cameras to RFID wristbands, retailers are monitoring everything you do.
Are you planning to visit Disneyland anytime soon? If so, watch out when you are offered its latest marketing innovation, the MagicBand. When it's introduced later this year, this oh-so-cuddly wristband will be embedded with a radio frequency identification (RFID) microchip and be part of a system dubbed MyMagic+.  It will enable the company to monitor, track and analyze your every activity. 

A recent  New York Times exposé reveals how the giant entertainment conglomerate plans to employ some of the latest spy technologies to “customize” its operations. According to the  Times, “Did you buy a balloon? What attractions did you ride and when? Did you shake Goofy’s hand, but snub Snow White? If you fully use MyMagic+, databases will be watching, allowing Disney to refine its offerings and customize its marketing messages." Sound innocent?

Disney’s plan to implement customer tracking is just the latest revelation about an expanding program of personal surveillance enveloping ever-greater aspects of personal life, online and in the physical world.  

Sadly, most Americans do not know the true scope of the tracking and surveillance now taking place. Four simple questions need to be addressed: 1) What is happening to all the personal data being captured? 2) How long is it being retained? 3) To what extent is it being sold to third-party commercial vendors? 4) Is your “private,” personal data being provided to government law enforcement authorities? 

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Next time you're walking around a department store, keep in mind that you are being monitored and analyzed in two complementary ways. First, your in-store movements are being electronically tracked, recorded and analyzed; second, your data history is being captured, updated, sold, integrated with other database information and analyzed. The two dimensions of your 21st-century public “self,” your physical behavior and your digital communications, are now subject to nearly instantaneous and ceaseless monitoring.

Corporations are expanding the scope of tracking with the use of two technologies, WSN (wireless sensor networks) and CCTV (closed-circuit television). WSN is a network of sensors within a large coverage area, like a mega-store. It is adaptable and flexible, capable of tracking cart movement and shelf inventory. 

In some of the most sophisticated outlets, wireless transmitters are embedded in shopping carts and in overhead sensors. These devices map how a customer moves through the store, where she stops to read the label or compare prices. Of special interest to retailers is the time spent in front of a display or kiosk, in a dressing room or the lavatory.

Still another application of wireless transmitter usage involves a system developed by IBM, dubbed “data-talks-to-data.” Sophisticated sensors, what some call “electronic noses,” are being embedded in the walls of buildings such as airports to detect threats, alert security services and track a person carrying a suspicious substance. It’s only a matter of time before they are placed in dressing rooms to identify the perfume a shopper is wearing. 

CCTV systems are being increasingly used to track customers. The system of choice integrates a stationary PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) camera with rotating and zooming functions and a sophisticated analytic software program. Cameras are strategically placed at the entry and exit of the store as well as at the loading-unloading areas. In addition, they are being installed above shelves, end caps, counters and in departments. Frequently, they are placed near costlier items like jewelry and electronic products. 

Video tracking helps map customer flow patterns, assess point-of-sale displays and purchasing habits. One company, Vizualize, sells “end-to-end solutions [that] track customer interaction times with products, store windows and point-of-purchase displays to measure their effectiveness in enticing shoppers to the store and conversion.”  The  company insists that "shoppers [are] never recognized nor integrated to systems in a fashion that could identify [an] individual without their explicit permission.”

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