Retailers Snooping On Holiday Shoppers Raises Privacy Concerns


PHOTO: A “heat map” shows items in a store, color-coded by how much time customers have spent looking at a given item. Only Santa, maybe, knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. But management at some 1,000 retailers this holiday season knows where you’ve been standing, how long you’ve had to wait in the checkout line, and which sweater or necktie or shovel you admired most while shopping.

New technologies for tracking shoppers in-store, in real time, make this possible. Some rely on signals emitted by customers’ smart phones. Another uses images from store security cameras.

Prism Skylabs’ technology analyzes security camera images to give retailers “heat maps,” on which hot colors such as red or orange denote the items customers are finding most desirable. The colors are determined, say, by how long a customer has stood in front of an item or how many times the item has been handled.

Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank in Washington, D.C., tells ABC News that the past few years have seen more retailers adopt customer-tracking technology. Everyone from malls to big-box vendors to small coffee shops is testing some sort of system, he says.

He thinks the situation has reached a turning point this shopping season with Apple’s introduction of customer location-sensing iBeacon technology, which can send a variety of information —including details on products, special offers, and events— to shoppers standing near new iBeacon transmitters. Whether a tracking technology qualifies as “creepy” (Polonetsky’s word) has yet to be determined[…]


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