"More than machinery, we need humanity."

You Have Already Opted-In

Have you ever walked around in a store, or by a shop window, and had a momentary odd feeling upon recognizing that you were on camera? Or, have you become rather inured to the experience of being spied on by security cameras? After all, many of the places you have visited in recent have likely been recording you.

And just because there hasn’t been a camera pointed at you, doesn’t mean that you’re not being recorded. The wall-mounted camera can only see you while you remain in its view range, but you are actualy transmitting a far more interesting and data rich picture than any that the camera could capture.

As Qunetin Hardy reported in a New York Times article titled “Technology Turns to Tracking People Offline“:

“A company called Euclid Analytics uses the Wi-Fi antennas inside stores to see how many people are coming into a store, how long they stay and even which aisles they walk. It does this by noting each smartphone that comes near the store, feeding on every signal ping the phone sends.”

To give you a better idea of where this is being used:

“Euclid is three years old and has about 100 customers, including Nordstrom and Home Depot. It has already tracked about 50 million devices in 4,000 locations.”

Let me take a moment to re-quote that: “50 million devices in 4,000 locations.” Which means that there’s a pretty good chance that you are amongst those 50 million. Keep in mind, you don’t even need to have gone into one of those stores, it is enough just to have walked by in close enough proximity.

The article emphasizes that companies are using this information to better understand customer behavior and to build a better “customer experience.” By being able to carefully track the movements of customers this information will enable stores to know where to put the items that they really want customers to see (i.e. buy), because the store is seeing every step the customer takes it knows just where your eyes will go.  Well, kind of.

But here’s the really important thing:

“Mr. Smith [Euclid’s CEO] says Euclid has more data than it gives to customers. It gives its customers only anonymous data in an collected form, so individuals won’t be targeted. Stores using the technology may also put stickers in their windows telling customers they are being monitored and allowing them to opt out.”

It seems to me that there is a very important bit of information here, albeit information that is being revealed through omission. Let me, re-quote (yet again) “Euclid has more data than it gives to customers. It gives its customers only anonymous data in an collected form, so individuals won’t be targeted.” Subtly buried within this statement is another important piece of information, namely that Euclid has more data, and that some of the data that it has could be used to target individuals.

And what becomes of that data? The article doesn’t say, but keep in mind that this data is you.  And the idea of “stickers in their windows” to tell customers that they can opt out seems almost laughable, especially if people are being tracked simply by walking by a store. Ponder the situation for a moment: if you need to enter the store and tell them that you “opt out” might they not already have gathered quite a bit of information on you, and don’t they also now have an additional piece of information of information about you: that you do not want to be targeted.

Furthermore, Euclid apparently has over 100 customers (companies), the article mentions two. You may now be justifiably wary of Nordstrom and Home Depot, but how do you know that you have not wandered into another store operated by one of Euclid’s 98 customers? You don’t.

The article goes on to discuss another company:

“Omnilink, which makes ankle devices for people under home arrest, talked about plans to expand into monitoring elders, children, workers on their own in the field and the infirm.

“Personal tracking is burgeoning,” said Kelly Gay, Omnilink’s chief executive. “It only takes one child to go missing or one person falling off a wall for us to see growth.””

I hope you find it amusing that Omnilink primarily makes “devices for people under home arrest,” and that they are now branching into an even more lucrative area. After all, only a small percentage of the public is being tracked by “ankle devices,” meaning there’s nothing but room for growth. The police, nominally, only want to track certain individuals but corporations want to track every individual.

I can certainly understand why some parents might want to be able to keep track of a young child, or why a worried family might want a way to keep tabs on an elderly relative, but these mentions at the end of the article almost seem like a distraction to what should be a very worrisome article. In an earlier post (here) I commented on a recent article by the ACLU in which they revealed the amount of information that can be pulled out of a smartphone, and Euclid is demonstrating that sometimes you don’t need to do anything more than carry the phone for it to be used to gather data about you.

Sure, it might have a cool case, and it might have pictures of your friends on it, but your smartphone is tracking you.

Do not be reassured by the promise of window stickers, by owning a smartphone you have already opted in.


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “You Have Already Opted-In

  1. Pingback: You Have Already Opted-In – Marcela Cava Balsa

  2. bridgepoet
    March 9, 2013

    It strikes me that smartphones likely “ping” their system because they are scoping out Wi-Fi signals. It seems plausible that turning the phone to Airplane Mode would eliminate that altogether, though for the time that you are shopping, you end up with a glorified paperweight in your pocket (unless you are one of those people who take notes, calculate prices, or play games while they shop).

    Also, it seems like the converse of the “burgeoning growth” quote is also true: It would just take one violation of civil rights to go to the Supreme Court for the market to be hampered.

    So it seems like it’s a race between Criminally-Induced-Market-Expansion and Civil-Rights-Supreme-Court-Enforced Regulation. If the market grows too much before a Supreme Court ruling bats it down, then the government will be powerless to stop it.

  3. Pingback: How Not to Heed a Warning | LibrarianShipwreck

  4. Pingback: The Cell is the Phone – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies (2) | LibrarianShipwreck

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