Big Brother label hits retailers accused of tracking customer movements

Retailers are facing fire, accused of Big Brother-type tactics that have led them to track the cell phone signals of customers to observe where they go and what they do inside store walls.

The technology lets retailers track shoppers’ movements using their smartphone identification codes and Wi-Fi Internet service, Alabama.com reported. It can tell if shoppers are repeat customers, and where they go within store boundaries, among other things.

Nordstrom was one of the earliest to test the technology. But facing backlash, The New York Times reported this week the retailer had stopped tracking customers.

“We did hear some complaints,” said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for the store, in The New York Times.

Still, plenty of other companies, from Family Dollar to Cabela’s to the specialty store Benetton, have tested the technology in their outlets. Complaints from customers and privacy groups alike are growing.

“The idea that you’re being stalked in a store is, I think, a bit creepy,” said Robert Plant, a computer information systems professor at the University of Miami School of Business Administration. Mr. Plant said the big difference between tracking customer preferences online, via cookies, and tracking their movements via their smartphones inside the stores on local WiFi is that the cookies protect privacy more.

“[With] a cookie, they don’t really know who I am,” he said, in The Times report.

Some customers, meanwhile, worry how companies would use the information. One quoted in The Times characterized it this way: “The creepy thing isn’t the privacy violation, it’s how much they can infer.”

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