Smartphone Location Awareness Puts Privacy Advocates on Edge (Again)

by Jeff Wiener on April 8, 2014

Just image you’re strolling through the local Wal-Mart when suddenly your smartphone bursts to life with a discount coupon for a little red bike. Taking stock of where you are you quickly realize that the bike in question is on the shelf in front of you. While you didn’t come to store with the intention to buy a bike, now you’re just not sure how you could pass up such a great deal. But how did the store know?

While the ability for your smartphone to track your whereabouts has always raised concerns, privacy advocates are once again bristling with discomfort over the latest deployment for such technology: location aware advertising.

The fact of the matter is that such location aware and user specific advertising is quickly becoming the next great deployment of your smartphone’s latent tracking ability, and while retailers are rejoicing over the ability to know a customer’s whereabouts within the store at any given time–able to deliver on the spot deals that might lead to increased impulse buying–there are many that feel that the privacy intrusion has simply gone too far.

In the 2002 science fiction film Minority Report director Steven Spielberg gave us a glimpse of the dystopian future of user specific advertising, a time when mobile advertising had moved beyond the smartphone to tracking our location and identity through implanted chips, delivering a barrage of targeted advertising wherever one might go. It’s was a futuristic vision that’s now quickly becoming a reality.

But the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is looking to curb the unabated advancement of such technology, having recently launched an initiative to explore whether or not the pinpoint accuracy of location tracking coupled with the continuous monitoring represents legitimate privacy concerns.

As E-Commerce Times writer John Higgins explains, “The FTC focused on the functioning of the Media Access Control, or MAC, address installed during the manufacturing of smartphones. When smartphones are turned on, the devices emit signals that facilitate Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. As a result, the location of the phone — and the person carrying it — can be followed electronically.”

Now aside from delivering pinpoint advertising to customers in a store, such tracking does provide retailers with helpful information. As Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Retail Federation, notes, “Location data can be used by retailers to improve store layout, reduce congestion within a store, and implement other efficient practices that benefit both the store owner and the consumer.”

But how would you feel if the latent tracking ability of your smartphone was deployed by retailers in such a manner, would you feel violated that Big Brother is effectively observing your every move through any given store, or would you be happy that you can now collect more rewards points for even more items you don’t really need?

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