It’s that time of year again — for those who celebrate gift-giving holidays, that is — when the debate around using big data to track shoppers both online and in-store rears its ugly head. In 2015, big data increased in both practice and controversy around the world, data-based tools and technology advanced and more industries realized the power of harnessing large swaths of data to process for more efficient business, address user needs, and better target future customers. But while the medical, science, and healthcare industries may have found their own uses for big data, the retail industry is an entirely different bag of worms.
Reports this week that the Danish city of Aalborg uses BlipTrack Wi-Fi device-detecting sensors to gain insight into shoppers’ habits during the Christmas season has sparked debate in particular on the ethics of such a practice. BlipTrack sensors are used elsewhere, notably in airports; Aalborg has installed the system in its city center. Springwise describes the BlipTrack system as consisting of a number of sensors placed around the city which detect nearby Wi-Fi devices:
Each device has a unique MAC address, meaning the system is able to track the user’s journey and how long they took to get from one sensor to the next. Aalborg can then use the data collected to understand the impact of events, as well as visitors’ shopping activities. The insights can help them improve business operations such as opening at optimum hours and providing the right amount of staff.
Of course, many cities and companies already do this. Google, for one. How else would Google Maps be able to tell users what the traffic is like on a given highway? Privacy advocates have been less than successful in changing laws regarding tracking users. Indeed, cities and local governments around the world continue to use big data to track drivers, pedestrians, and other city-goers in order to understand how to create more efficient traffic patterns among other improvements to urban life. (Blouin News has previously reported on how big data is being used to improve urban landscapes.)
But the controversy gets more heated when retail businesses get involved. For a few years now, merchants have been testing reaching out to customers as they walk through their doors — prompting privacy advocates to sound the alarm. Huge retailers like Kohl’s and Macy’s have tested personalizing offers to users in their stores, for example, by sending coupons to users’ phones. The truth is that devices connected to the internet generate data, and privacy advocates argue that there are not enough measures in place to not only protect users, but merely to give them the option to participate in a store’s marketing game in the first place.
The concerns here are largely obvious. Privacy advocates hate the idea of any business tracking users without their consent, even though many websites do just that with cookies and other tracking technology. Indeed, Facebook was forced to concede to the Belgian government on this subject earlier this month, and promised to stop tracking the browsers of users who do not have Facebook accounts but who are looking at public Facebook pages. (It’s common knowledge that Facebook tracks users with cookies. Consider the eerily well-targeted ads…)
While Aalborg appears to be using tracking systems not to target shoppers but to better understand their function within the city, the practice nonetheless prompts concerns over big data and the shopper as a whole. As with most technologies, big data and data collection practices have evolved faster than governments can regulate them. While some believe that is a good thing, noting that technology should be allowed to flourish, data and security experts emphasize that proper data governance is necessary, and that we need to figure out how to responsibly use the massive amount of data generated by every internet user out there.