Some Malls Tracking Shoppers Through Their Cell Phones This Holiday Season

For some mall shoppers, Black Friday has become Track Friday.

Thanks to a snoopy piece of tech from a U.K. company called Path Intelligence, some malls in Europe, Australia, and the United States will be tracking shoppers' movements today through their cell phones.

A small number of discreet monitoring units installed throughout a mall, the company says, can grab signals from consumers' mobile phones and track their movements with an accuracy of "a few meters." That information is fed to a processing center where it is audited and analyzed to create a real-time picture of traffic flow through a shopping center. Mall operators can keep constant tabs on the information through Path Intelligence's secure web-based reporting system.

As you'd expect with someone engaged in this kind of unsettling activity, the company swears it's committed to protecting the privacy of the people it's surveilling. "[O]ur detector units do not allow us to obtain your telephone number, to listen to any of your calls, read any SMS messages read or sent by you, or to log details of any calls or SMS messages made or received by you," Path Intelligence states on its website. "Neither does any of the information received allow us to identify you or any group of individuals."

Two U.S. malls--Promenade Temecula in Southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va.--will be launching the tracking service today and will use it through New Year's Day, according to a report by CNN.

What's It Used For?

Path Intelligence's description of its service
With the system, mall operators hope to gather information such as how many shoppers who visit one store also visit another (for example, how many Nordstrom shoppers also shop at Starbucks), how long a typical customer spends in a store, and what are the most unpopular spots in the mall.

Malls have tracked shopping traffic for some time, but this is the first time cell phones have been used to do it, CNN reported.

"We won't be looking at singular shoppers," Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City Commercial Management, the outfit that manages both malls, told CNN. "The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to."

Whether anonymous tracking is harmless or not, the malls aren't taking any chances on the privacy front. They're hanging small signs around their premises informing shoppers that their cell phones are being used to track them. Anyone who wants to opt out of the system can simply turn off their phone. That's quite a high-handed recommendation, considering how mobiles have been integrated into the shopping experience of many shoppers, and one very likely to be ignored, whether this tracking scheme violates shoppers' privacy or not.

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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