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Our Bizarre Shopping Privacy Double-Standards

By Therealsupermum @TheRealSupermum

Our Bizarre Shopping Privacy Double-Standards

Christmas may have been barely over, but that hasn’t stopped people going into a kind of consumerist overdrive. The January Sales meant frankly insulting reductions on the stuff we were all buying and wrapping in neat packages just a month ago. Both online and on the high street, we’ll happily hand over our money, apprehensive of future price rises (that never happen) and of our next big purchase going out of stock.


Even ten years ago, the January Sales didn’t seem quite as aggressive as they now are. The reason behind that seems to be that online is now in the mix: for retail, it always made sense to have a short rest and restock in the Christmas week, preparing shops for enthusiastic shoppers on the 1st of January. But online plays by slightly different rules: wait until January 1st, and everyone would prefer to take a trip to the shops, rather than waiting 3-4 days for a delivery. Furthermore, there is no time spent on physically relabeling, rebranding or restocking: just do it all before Christmas and as soon as it’s Boxing Day, the sale is on at the flick of a button.

Big Brother Is Watching You… Shop

The formula behind our shopping habits is always this complicated. When do we absolutely need something right here and now? When is a walk into town too much effort? When is price no object? Now that many high street January sales start in late December, they’re still losing out to the fact that many would rather shop from home (if at all) when there are still relatives to visit, sleep to catch up on, mountains of cold turkey to deplete.


Accompanying this year’s January Sales is the news that in the UK, at least ten shopping centres have been fitted with a system called ‘FootPath’. The system, developed by Path Intelligence and used in malls in at least seven other countries, is capable of detecting phone signals and using these can pinpoint a person’s location to within 2ms. Since virtually everyone in the UK has a mobile phone, this allows for some impressive data collection, allowing for heat-map generation of popular mall locations and accurate estimates of footfall and time spent on location.


Queue the ‘Big Brother’ headlines and vastly inflated claims of center owners and shop operators being able to ‘spy’ on people’s phones. Path Intelligence reassure the public that ‘no personal data is stored’, assuming that anyone believe that it was easy, desirable or even always possible to extract on-mass the contents of your phone. In the end, the whole incident is undoubtedly good publicity for the company: more centres will know about the technology, and people have been given the impression that it’s a lot more high-tech than it actually is.


But Isn’t He Always?

Nevertheless, people are unhappy with the notion of being spied on, no matter how closely or thoroughly, and the backlash is only rational. Except, in the context of a shopping season where both retail and online tills are ringing to the sound of people pouring their thrifty little hearts out, the fact that we’re so incredibly apathetic about the information that online outlets can collect on us.


The last year has seen the internet going into sharing overdrive. The rise and rise of services like Four Square has been illuminating. Now everyone knows where you are, and where you’ve been. Spotify integration in Facebook shares precisely what music you listen to, apps for newspapers share embarrassing details on the headlines that grab you first and the social network’s own ‘Timeline’ profile standard encourages you to share every last event you’ve been involved in, every photo you’ve ever taken. When posted, this information is useful to no person, except the advertisers that Facebook could potentially sell this stuff to (seriously people. You should feel bad about checking into McDonalds whilst listening to Vanilla Ice. You shouldn’t be telling people this stuff).


It all begs the question: how can we realistically be worried about shopping centres collecting details on consumer numbers and trends when these are so incredibly simplistic next to a typical Google Analytics installation? FootPath is simply the high-street desperately trying to claw back a little ground on its online opponents. It can’t tell them the precise thought processes that bought you to centre, or the path you took to get there. Analytics can (to a degree) – providing those all important keywords and referral paths. Complaints about FootPath only being indicated by a ‘little yellow sign’ ring particularly hollow when the presence of Analytics on thousands of websites is barely flagged at all.


Our attitude to the online world is bizarre and contradictory. The presence of closed circuit televisions oppresses us, yet we invite machines into our homes that record a trillion more invasive details about our lives. Some of our apathy is ignorance – it’s no secret that people’s understanding of video surveillance is greater than their understanding of computers and the internet. And I’m sure that people feel that, with so much information out there, it’s safe to share because your information is simply lost in a deluge. But perhaps after all, we need to ask ourselves deeper questions on the subject of information sharing. So, over to you in the comments: what are your thoughts on this contentious issue?


Steph Wood writes on behalf UK-based Vanquis Credit Cards, generating content on a number of topics.

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