Protecting Privacy in a Smartphone World


Photo courtesy of Renew London

If you’ve traveled the streets of London lately, there is a chance that a trash bin tried to pick up your smartphone.

I mean that in the abstract sense. A company called Renew recently programmed “smart” trash bins to record the unique addresses of smartphones carried by pedestrians. No one was notified, and there was no way for people to know that their personal data was being collected. But in one day, a small number of those bins collected data from more than a million devices.

Renew since discontinued the tracking, but that won’t stop the technology. Other companies have been selling this same kind of innovation to retailers for some time.

This practice came to light in an NBC story that declared, alarmingly, that “smartphones could spell the end of real-world privacy.”

“Unless leaders step up and work on a framework that works for all consumers, it’s going keep getting worse and worse until it is unbearable,” one source was quoted.

But whether it is the end of real-world privacy all depends on the handling.

Basically, the NBC story analyzes how new technology is making age-old research in retail more accessible. For instance, the technology company Euclid, like Renew, sells retail tracking systems that follow not only how consumers pass through the store, but the lengths of their visits and return shopping patterns.

Marketers have for some time been automating research processes, like in grocery stores where they have turned to tracking phones as a replacement to using tracking devices on shopping carts. The technology is advancing, but to me the issue isn’t the direction of the technology; the issue is transparency and what marketers consider reasonable in how they use this data.

The story, for example, emphasizes a balance between data aggregation and anonymity. This balance presents an opportunity to improve the customer experience to drive higher sales, but some may perceive the technology simply as a method for personal targeting.

It is up to marketers to prove one over the other. The answer likely lies in this question: Would consumers opt in to have their traffic tracked if they knew there was a benefit?

That’s not a debate for the trash bin.

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