Is Your Mall Spying on You?

Shelby Bremer
July 15, 2013

Retailers are always trying to understand more about their customers’ habits. Companies want to know what kinds of products you buy, how you purchase them, and why you buy, presumably so they can more effectively market to you. But how far is too far when it comes to obtaining information about your shopping habits?

Retailers have long been devising ways to track consumer behavior, from security cameras to undercover shoppers. But technological advances have enabled many malls to recently implement cell phone tracking systems for more precision and accuracy in their research. In some malls, your behavior throughout the entire shopping complex may be monitored, from where you go to how long you stay there. Antennae installed throughout the mall collect data from individual phones to track movement, providing insight into traffic by store, time, entrance and day.

Representatives of both retail centers and tech companies alike posit that personal information (like phone numbers, names, or purchases) is not collected, but rather consumer behavior as a whole is documented. “The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to,” said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City Commercial Management, a management company that implemented this system in two malls in 2011.

But critics say that this system, which tracks consumers by individual identification numbers unique to each phone, is an invasion of privacy and a violation of consumer rights.

The two shopping centers managed by Forest City both suspended use of this system in 2011 after Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) raised privacy concerns in a statement, saying, “Personal cellphones are just that—personal. If retailers want to tap into your phone to see what your shopping patterns are, they can ask you for your permission to do so.” Schumer called for a mandatory opt-in process as well as an examination of this technology by the Federal Trade Commission.

Though this prompted the cancellation of this system for those two malls, there are currently no regulations in place for consumers to be notified of a tracking system as they shop. Shopping centers that employ this technology may have signs posted throughout their complex, but currently the best (and only) way to opt out of this system is to turn your cell phone off while at the mall.

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