Mining WiFi Data: Retail Privacy Pitfalls - InformationWeek
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9/15/2014
09:06 AM
Doug Henschen
Doug Henschen
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Mining WiFi Data: Retail Privacy Pitfalls

WiFi data mining starts with anonymous tracking, but it can lead to personal details in social profiles. Interop New York session explores opportunities and limits for retailers.

Retailers are changing their tune when it comes to installing and exploiting WiFi infrastructure for customer insight. But are some retailers going too far?

This is the question Ryan Adzima, senior wireless engineer at systems reseller General Datatech, will pose at Interop New York next month in an October 2nd presentation entitled, "The Social Wi-Fi Goldmine: Should You Be Digging?" Not so long ago, retailers were reticent to invest in WiFi infrastructure, but Adzima says they now see the advantages of promoting online access and making shopping apps available to customers.

"Two years ago, nobody wanted to put Wi-Fi in their stores to give consumers a way to window shop," Adzima says. "Now they have a massive incentive because they'll see you going to Amazon or other competitors, they'll see your buying history, and they can target you more specifically and draw you away from competitors."

[Are there any standards in this domain? Read NIST Drafts Mobile App Security Guidelines.]

The baseline opportunity in exploiting WiFi is anonymous information gathering. With presence-analytics applications, for example, retailers have no idea who you are, but they can track the unique mobile access control (MAC) addresses of smartphones as they pass through a store. From this they can gather statistics on footpaths and dwell times at various locations throughout the store and gain insight into which departments, displays and specific products are drawing traffic.

Purple WiFi touts heat mapping, geofencing, and automated promotions among the capabilities of its Wi-Fi analytics suite.
Purple WiFi touts heat mapping, geofencing, and automated promotions among the capabilities of its Wi-Fi analytics suite.

This intelligence, provided by vendors like Euclid Analytics and Purple WiFi, helps you understand the traits of customers coming directly into your store from parking-lot entrances versus mall entrances, which might hint at primary versus secondary stops. It also help with department and product evaluation and planning, so you can come up with strategies to place traffic-driving products near profit-driving products or departments that aren't getting enough attention.

Privacy hawks would point out that these surveillance systems can track smartphones whether users log onto the store's public WiFi service or not (so long as the phones have WiFi on). What's more, MAC addresses are unique to each device and therefore are traceable to unique owners.

But tracking to individuals just doesn't happen, according to Adzima, and even if retailers practice this kind of surveillance without logins, "There's nothing wrong with this approach," he says. "It has nothing to do with individuals; it's about understanding shoppers as a group."

The next step up in mobile-data mining is welcoming customers to login into your WiFi network and, simultaneously, your customer loyalty account. That could happen using Facebook or another network account ID and password, but we'll get to this social-profile angle in a moment. For now, let's just assume

Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of ... View Full Bio
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iperezseeketing
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iperezseeketing,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/3/2017 | 3:14:59 AM
Security Risk
From our point of view,  the problem is that these mentioned vendors are transmiting every MAC Address from Access Point equipment to their platforms in the cloud (where are proccessing the MAC Address information)....So they are storing MAC addresses in their IT systems. Another better alternative is to use Seeketing technology www.seeketing.com because it use other parameters of radio signals and no MAC address info is never transmited or stored.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
9/16/2014 | 1:20:40 PM
Re: Apple Pay
Apple is throwing a curve ball into the WiFi analytics mix with iOS 8, which, as I understand it, will randomly generate constantly changing MAC addresses to search for Wi-Fi. This will ease privacy concerns and you will likely still see rough dwell times and traffic patterns, but it will make it harder to trace precise footpaths of individual shoppers as addresses change.
stephany3
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stephany3,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/16/2014 | 11:20:32 AM
Location Tracking Opt Out
You can actually opt-out of this kind of mobile location analytics tracking through the Smart Places Opt Out (smart-places.org)
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
9/15/2014 | 5:47:03 PM
Re: The sky is falling!
I've used one a few times. It started off well, but then the quality of the produce started to drop, so we went back to doing our own shopping. Plus, there's different things we like to get from different stores. Maybe if someone did a service that would hit four or five places...
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 5:24:25 PM
Re: The sky is falling!
Drew, doesn't that make you want to use a grocery service that delivers?
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 4:35:45 PM
Apple Pay
It will be interesting to see whether Apple Pay, with its promise not to reveal personal details of users to retailers, will change the industry's use of data.
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
9/15/2014 | 4:00:07 PM
Re: The sky is falling!
That's good. I would hate to see the jobs go away. It would also be creepy to wander around an empty store, like in the original Dawn of the Dead movie.
Wirelessnerd
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Wirelessnerd,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/15/2014 | 3:46:55 PM
Re: The sky is falling!
Hopefully not! I like to use tech to create a better customer service experience, not to replace people. Giving people the ability to understand their customers more while using technology to help serve them better is the main goal .. at least for me :)
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
9/15/2014 | 3:42:18 PM
Re: The sky is falling!
I wonder if we'll get to the point where there are no actual employees in retail stores any more. Everything will be do-it-yourself, with help available via your mobile. It's already starting to happen near me: our local grocery store rarely has more than 2 cashiers working checkout because of the self-checkout kiosks.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2014 | 10:47:38 AM
Re: shopping cart demolition derby
@David ha! I'm sure many do it already, particularly teens who seem to need to carry a device as if it were a lifesupport system.
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