Video: Retailers tracking you through free Wi-Fi

posted at 10:01 am on January 17, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

While we’re debating about the reach of the NSA into our lives, perhaps a few thoughts about private-sector “snooping” might be in order, too. CBS This Morning‘s Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell interviewed WSJ reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin on the use of free wi-fi in retail environments for building profiles and tracking customers, a subject on which Dwoskin reported last week:

Mr. Zhang is a client of Turnstyle Solutions Inc., a year-old local company that has placed sensors in about 200 businesses within a 0.7 mile radius in downtown Toronto to track shoppers as they move in the city.

The sensors, each about the size of a deck of cards, follow signals emitted from Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones. That allows them to create portraits of roughly 2 million people’s habits as they have gone about their daily lives, traveling from yoga studios to restaurants, to coffee shops, sports stadiums, hotels, and nightclubs. …

But Turnstyle is among the few that have begun using the technology more broadly to follow people where they live, work and shop. The company’s dense network of sensors can track any phone that has Wi-Fi turned on, enabling the company to build profiles of consumers lifestyles.

Turnstyle’s weekly reports to clients use aggregate numbers and don’t include people’s names. But the company does collect the names, ages, genders, and social media profiles of some people who log in with Facebook to a free Wi-Fi service that Turnstyle runs at local restaurants and coffee shops, including Happy Child. It uses that information, along with the wider foot traffic data, to come up dozens lifestyle categories, including yoga-goers, people who like theater, and hipsters.

A business that knows which sports team is most favored by its clients could offer special promotions on game days, says Turnstyle’s 27-year-old founder Chris Gilpin. Czehoski, a local restaurant, hired an ’80s-music DJ for Friday nights after learning from Turnstyle that more than 60% of the restaurant’s Wi-Fi-enabled customers were over 30.

But as the industry grows in prominence, location trackers are bound to ignite privacy concerns. A company could, for example, track people’s visits to specialist doctors or hospitals and sell that data to marketers.

In other words, this happens whether one uses the free wi-fi internet service or not. If your smartphone has its wi-fi service on, Turnstyle (and presumably others in this industry) can track you anonymously and create profiles. If you want Internet connectivity, so much the better. The bandwidth consumers use is peanuts to the value of the data collected. More than one retailer offers coupons with scan codes when customers use their wi-fi service in the store, and it’s probably not difficult to match up the bar codes to the point-of-sale information and build very specific profiles from that information, too.

Most people probably understand that using these systems reduces their privacy, and are willing to trade off for the service. That’s certainly been true of free Internet services, such as e-mail. The extent of that intrusion may still surprise a lot of people, especially if they aren’t consenting as they do when signing up on Turnstyle’s Facebook site or the retailer’s web page.

Just remember this truth in the Internet age: If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customerIf that bothers people, they’d better be sure to turn off their wi-fi functions in public when they are not using them.


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Thank God for Tasker. As soon as I leave my house, my phone recognizes that I’ve left and turns off my wifi on my phone.

*Note, feature not available on iOS devices :P

Defenestratus on January 17, 2014 at 10:03 AM

You get what you pay for.

NotCoach on January 17, 2014 at 10:03 AM

Retailers want to know if you are going in their store to see the product then ordering it right there on Amazon….

albill on January 17, 2014 at 10:05 AM

Big brother

cmsinaz on January 17, 2014 at 10:07 AM

NSA tracks you not matter if wi-fi is on or off or even if you don’t have a mobilephone….

albill on January 17, 2014 at 10:08 AM

I’m always surfing when out and about. I don’t buy jack shat anymore because I’m starving the beast, but when I do the prices are compared to Ebay or Amazon. I hope the trackers are noticing that.

Bishop on January 17, 2014 at 10:11 AM

Yet more good reasons I do not have a smartphone nor use facebook.

rbj on January 17, 2014 at 10:15 AM

And the digital record is forever. Once you’re classified as a ‘hipster’ you just have to live with the stigma.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 10:17 AM

No such thing as a free….wifi?

thebrokenrattle on January 17, 2014 at 10:17 AM

rbj on January 17, 2014 at 10:15 AM

Dittos.

avagreen on January 17, 2014 at 10:19 AM

And when the Russians warn us about a possible terrorist threat..
(Boston)
We act dumb and confused…after the fact….

And when an Ambassador warns us about a possible terrorist attack..
(That Ben guy)
We act dumb and confused…after the fact..

But hell…

We know everything about everything about the potential victims…

Electrongod on January 17, 2014 at 10:21 AM

And the digital record is forever. Once you’re classified as a ‘hipster’ you just have to live with the stigma.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 10:17 AM

Well that would certainly explain Jay Carney.

Happy Nomad on January 17, 2014 at 10:24 AM

My profile would tell them I go to the bakery and browse Hot Air while eating bagels.

CJ on January 17, 2014 at 10:27 AM

Czehoski, a local restaurant, hired an ’80s-music DJ for Friday nights after learning from Turnstyle that more than 60% of the restaurant’s Wi-Fi-enabled customers were over 30.

No mention of whether this was successful or not.

Happy Nomad on January 17, 2014 at 10:28 AM

My profile would tell them I go to the bakery and browse Hot Air while eating bagels.

CJ on January 17, 2014 at 10:27 AM

Well, you’ll know if Big Brother is profiling you if they start offering a “Tea Party Special.”

Happy Nomad on January 17, 2014 at 10:29 AM

I don’t think this is quite what is described. A WiFi signal alone is no more than a very sophisticated traffic count. But still anonymous. Now if they are getting the serial number of the signal from the carrier to identify you personally that is a whole different matter. That would be like getting your licence plate information from the State. It describes you voluntarily signing on to a free face book account for your personal information. It is no secret face book passes out information on everybody. They simply extrapolate the information for everyone from the exact data they receive from facebook.

CW20 on January 17, 2014 at 10:31 AM

CW20 on January 17, 2014 at 10:31 AM

With browser fingerprinting/sniffing, and correlating data with ad companies and google (but I repeat myself), they can actually do a pretty good job of uniquely identifying most people. These particular guys may not be that sophisticated …yet.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 10:41 AM

Well that would certainly explain Jay Carney.

Happy Nomad on January 17, 2014 at 10:24 AM

Or even worse: a hipster wannabe.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Another way of saying that tagline:
If you’re not paying for the product … you ARE the product.

AeroSpear on January 17, 2014 at 10:50 AM

With browser fingerprinting/sniffing, and correlating data with ad companies and google (but I repeat myself), they can actually do a pretty good job of uniquely identifying most people. These particular guys may not be that sophisticated …yet.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 10:41 AM

You do realize that you don’t have to be google to correlate data.

Hell I’ve been able to positively identify people from Hot Gas with nothing more than their user ID and posting habits.

Defenestratus on January 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM

With browser fingerprinting/sniffing, and correlating data with ad companies and google (but I repeat myself), they can actually do a pretty good job of uniquely identifying most people. These particular guys may not be that sophisticated …yet.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 10:41 AM

You are right in this sense. I would assume that once you signed on to face book or any other account they could identify you with they would associate your serial number with you across the board. That information is for sale and forever.

CW20 on January 17, 2014 at 10:57 AM

Meh.

I bet the data that Turnstyle solutions compiles is completely useless. Like the reporter said, “they’re still trying to figure out what to do with it.”

blink on January 17, 2014 at 10:23 AM

I knew an ex-CIA guy, now dead, that said he wanted stores to track people. He felt that just the amount of data collected would overwhelm any system the retailer could put in place and that the return on investment wouldn’t be there. He said the best way to keep privacy was for them to gather so much data that you just fade into the noise.

Dr. Frank Enstine on January 17, 2014 at 10:59 AM

CW20 on January 17, 2014 at 10:31 AM

With browser fingerprinting/sniffing, and correlating data with ad companies and google (but I repeat myself), they can actually do a pretty good job of uniquely identifying most people. These particular guys may not be that sophisticated …yet.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 10:41 AM

I think skepticism is in order. It’s possible to uniquely identify a phone by the MAC address if WIFI is on. Tying that to a unique person is probably not possible unless you do something that lets them associate a name with the MAC address, like logging in to their website.

My guess is that they’re overstating the claims for the tracking they can do in order to get more customers.

That said, there is a lot that an unscrupulous company can do to track individuals using free services, and many services are free for just that reason. And we should bear in mind that many companies believe that any practice that is not specifically illegal is ethical to use.

There Goes the Neighborhood on January 17, 2014 at 11:03 AM

You are right in this sense. I would assume that once you signed on to face book..forever.

CW20 on January 17, 2014 at 10:57 AM

..swear to Zeus, I deleted my Facebook page/account/whatevs and it is still there. It just keeps coming back, like Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton, or Anthony Wiener. Naw, mate, the gumming got a vicegrip on your short and curlies and it’s for life.

The War Planner on January 17, 2014 at 11:05 AM

Defenestratus on January 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM

Yes, but you doing a one off vs on a mass scale automatically are two different things.

CW20 on January 17, 2014 at 10:57 AM

And most people have some kind of online account where they are identified in real life. For example, hotair requires an email, and maybe you made a one use webmail account for this (and I do mean strictly one use), but most don’t. It becomes cumbersome.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 11:07 AM

You do realize that you don’t have to be google to correlate data.

Hell I’ve been able to positively identify people from Hot Gas with nothing more than their user ID and posting habits.

Defenestratus on January 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM

I would assume that those are users that have an extensive net footprint and don’t care if they are identified.

My WordPress account as no personal info about me.
The email address is Gmail used specifically for the WordPress accoount and no other. There is no personal info attached to the Gmail account.

My user name which is not the same as my screen name was inherited from another person. They got tired of posting here and gave it to me so I could post. The user name may on may not be relevant to that person.

So how would you positively identify me through HA?

Dr. Frank Enstine on January 17, 2014 at 11:10 AM

My guess is that they’re overstating the claims for the tracking they can do in order to get more customers…

There Goes the Neighborhood on January 17, 2014 at 11:03 AM

I just went here and got the following:

Your browser fingerprint appears to be unique among the 3,787,006 tested so far.

Now, not everyone’s going to be unique. But you start correlating data and it becomes very possible. Though I do agree most aren’t that good at it yet, it’s coming.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 11:19 AM

I just went here and got the following:
Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 11:19 AM

But is that even visible to anything other than the client browser. I could easily show you the contents of your hard drive from a web page but the data is local to you only.

Dr. Frank Enstine on January 17, 2014 at 11:41 AM

Wouldn’t it just be easier to make good products and provide good service to customers?

PattyJ on January 17, 2014 at 11:43 AM

Simple. I don’t use my smartphone for social media. But I do need to dowload the app to automatically turnoff the wifi when any of my listed access points are out of range.

AH_C on January 17, 2014 at 11:48 AM

But is that even visible to anything other than the client browser. I could easily show you the contents of your hard drive from a web page but the data is local to you only.

Dr. Frank Enstine on January 17, 2014 at 11:41 AM

It’s visible to the server, that’s how they generate the page. Now, if you turn off javascript on you local browser they can’t generate some info to send back. But that’s an identifying characteristic itself, most people use it because most web pages use javascript heavily.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 11:54 AM

And no, you can’t show me the contents of my hard drive with a browser, unless I navigate to a local directory. But you can’t from the network (assuming no exploits).

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 11:56 AM

But is that even visible to anything other than the client browser. I could easily show you the contents of your hard drive from a web page but the data is local to you only.

Dr. Frank Enstine on January 17, 2014 at 11:41 AM

Yea all that data is available to any website you visit.. That is a measure of uniqueness, as in, how many other people could have the exact same setup as I do and what is the probability, etc.

However it’s totally moot as in order for the server to view that information you must first connect to it which would then give the server a 1 to 1 match for you via ip # so I’m not sure what the aggregate data based on ‘browser’ would even matter.

preallocated on January 17, 2014 at 12:01 PM

preallocated on January 17, 2014 at 12:01 PM

If you’re using free wifi, then they are the man in the middle, and you have connected to them. That’s the topic of this story.

The point is that if once, just once in your lifetime, you are personally identified as belonging to that browser, then that’s enough. I agree though, that they’re probably not that meticulous about it currently, but they’re incrementally getting better.

Fenris on January 17, 2014 at 12:13 PM

Simple. I don’t use my smartphone for social media…

AH_C on January 17, 2014 at 11:48 AM

Simpler: I just replaced my 10+ year-old Razr V3x with same from eBay.
I have a very novel exclusive use: I sometimes talk to people with it.
(And I have better reception that anyone I know.)

Tsar of Earth on January 17, 2014 at 12:21 PM

Video: Retailers tracking you through free Wi-Fi

Path Intelligence does it by tracking your mobile phone, anonymously, of course.

Most people probably understand that using these systems reduces their privacy, and are willing to trade off for the service

We take it as seriously as you do

rukiddingme on January 17, 2014 at 12:29 PM

Biggest problem I see with this is .gov might use a blanket subpoena to harvest it.

agmartin on January 17, 2014 at 12:51 PM

More than one retailer offers coupons with scan codes when customers use their wi-fi service in the store, and it’s probably not difficult to match up the bar codes to the point-of-sale information and build very specific profiles from that information, too.

I’m not surprised by this, Ed…but in the sense I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that “Free” has a cost all it’s own.

The terminals at certain retailers (Target, Sears) won’t correlate that unless the customer is *giving* the information (example: Email address at a Redbox Kiosk) or applying for the store Credit Card.

“Smart” Registers or scanners (like the Mobile on-the-Go RFID) are a little more sophisticated but still, you have to volunteer a lot of information more than a Big Brother scan.

BlaxPac on January 17, 2014 at 12:54 PM

Minority Report meets 1984

TrubadorMike on January 17, 2014 at 1:08 PM

It’s possible to uniquely identify a phone by the MAC address if WIFI is on. Tying that to a unique person is probably not possible unless you do something that lets them associate a name with the MAC address, like logging in to their website.

There Goes the Neighborhood on January 17, 2014 at 11:03 AM

Well, who else besides you uses the device with that MAC address? That means that *you* have been identified, insofar as they don’t care about your name.

And you don’t have to log into *their* website to give them that info, either – if you login to FaceBook, the page being returned is specific to your account, and they now have that info, as it passes through their wi-fi device.

And, no, I don’t have a personal FaceBook account, and this is one of the reasons.

GWB on January 17, 2014 at 1:40 PM

Well, I DO kinda like some of the adds……..

WryTrvllr on January 17, 2014 at 1:45 PM

You mean there isn’t a cost involved somewhere with free????

/sigh

kim roy on January 17, 2014 at 1:48 PM

Personally I would never own a smart phone but there’s this:

http://www.popsci.com/gadgets/article/2013-08/how-protect-yourself-your-phone

WryTrvllr on January 17, 2014 at 1:55 PM

Just remember this truth in the Internet age: If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customer.

And even if you do pay for the service, you’re probably still not the only customer. The software shrink-wrap agreements of old have morphed into a ‘click-ok-to-use’ indecipherable mess of legal gibberish that basically come down to the same thing: They’ll use your data however they please. And if they can use and sell it in real-time, so much more the profit for them.

Marcola on January 17, 2014 at 1:59 PM