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Shopping Malls Now Using Powered On Cell Phones Data to Track Moves

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In The News

Think you should be able to talk freely, text or communicate by phone--on your own private time while shopping in a mall? Think again. Only if you’re ok being tracked. Malls are using mobile or cellular phones to track moves and find out how long and where you shop. Major malls in California and Virginia don't quite seem to make that clear.

JC Penney and Home Depot just may decide the new tracking technology is also for them. There’s always Macy’s and OSH.

Shoppers may be unnerved and irritated to know they’ve been tracked—in the very malls where they’re spending money, or plan to spend cash. If you enjoy shopping, you may enjoy less to now know that your very own phone and the cellular bill you pay for being used to someone else’s advantage. Two malls -- Promenade Temecula in California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Virginia -- are owned by a company called “Forest City” which is using technology to access your whereabouts, via your own service and device, to find out where you go and for how long. And they’re not really telling you about it. And if you think you’re safe in a parking structure, think again.

Both shopping malls, managed by Forest City Commercial Management which is an $11.5 billion dollar company, are using what’s been dubbed “FootPath Technology” to actively track shopper movements. And they’re doing it using the cell phones or mobile devices you pay for and use. The mobile, signal-based data is being collected ‘anonymously’ – and that anonymous factor supposedly creates a gap that the mall claims entitles them to do it. It is legal? The mall’s owner or management claims so. Is it really legal? That may be more questionable.

While the malls’ owner or management claims it supposedly can’t (or won’t) access personal or specific names, other personally identifying information or specific mobile phone numbers, it’s all more than a bit unnerving – particularly considering what seems to be deliberate secrecy surrounding the scenario. The company’s claiming “transparency” – the part that doesn’t seem questionable considering what appears to be a very clear lack of notification to mall shoppers.

What the mall wants to know is where you’re spending that dough or in what shops, exactly what stores or retailers are being visited, and how long shoppers are spending in those spots. And while mall representative Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for the two malls, told media outlets like CNN that the malls won’t be looking at individual shoppers, the statement seems to be an interesting twist on any truth: The company swears it’s not garnering personally identifying info, supposedly the truer part of the statement. But in contradiction, it’s impossible that the company isn’t looking at singular shoppers – because it actually is. The technology is identifying length of time a shopper spends in stores and where shoppers head after store visits. To claim singular shoppers aren’t being tracked seems very misleading when, in fact, Foot Path Technology uses antennas to capture the unique ID number associated with an individual phone – similarly to the associated IP address for computers.

Of course it seems all the more shady that management or ownership of Promenade Temecula isn’t quite being clear in identifying the actual company its using in its announcement. The media continues to refer to use of what it calls “FootPath Technology” – and that’s technically correct, but it’s the name of the product rather than the name of the company. The company behind this tracking technology is called “Path Intelligence Ltd”. Call it the British invasion: Foot Path isn’t an American company but its presence is certainly here, or now arriving.

In fact stores like JC Penney and Home Depot are rumored to be discussing possibility or plans of implementing the same or similar consumer tracking technology into their retail stores. That could obviously change should there be any serious uprising or customer backlash – over privacy concerns or other concerns – following the more recent use in two national malls. If customers, for instance, insist they won’t set foot in a store that’s tracking their every move it could obviously prompt an alternate decision.

Path Intelligence is using a technology involving heat maps will identify where Promenade Temecula and Short Pump Town Center shoppers tend to spend time, their shopping behavior – and general flow throughout the California and Viriginia malls. The Foot Path Technology, as it’s dubbed, lets the malls know where you shop and for how long. And it’s a scary concept.

Monitoring spots are located throughout the malls. And shoppers aren’t safe outside of the actual indoor mall either: Promenade Temecula is monitoring cell phones of shoppers even its associated parking garages. The collected shopper data or info is sent, after collection from the parking garage or interior parts of the mall, to a separate center where it’s then analyzed.

The most interesting part is what the mall claims: According to Promenade Temecula Marketing Director Kym Espinosa, the shopping center’s using shoppers’ cell phone data to supposedly better or enhance the shopper experience: “It just gives us an idea where people go when they’re on the property,” Espinosa claims. “It’s really kind of critical (information) when you’re a mall developer. Expectations change so often from a consumer’s standpoint.” Of course it seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to as mall management or an owner – just to get an idea of where people go on a property.

If it all sounds like bullshit, that’s pretty much how it seems: Shoppers aren’t getting back anything for that data they’re freely giving. And shoppers have been giving that info without knowledge. The Path Intelligence CEO claims she doesn’t know why anyone would opt out. Until now the technology’s only been used in Europe. If those users were “notified” in the same way as is occurring – or not occurring – in America, shoppers may not have had a lot of option in choice. They may never even have known they were part of the tracking.

Why are the malls and other retailers so interested in using tracking technology and tracing customers via their phones? What the mall management or owner really wants to know is very important stuff like whether movie theater patrons happen to hit up a Starbucks coffee en route or, perhaps, a Best Buy. That kind of info equals some pretty powerful data and could mean big bucks in advertising or revenue. The grand excuse is that the malls are focused on enhancing the user experience for shoppers -- that the data allows the mall to see whether certain peak or increased traffic times require a boost in security. Of course it’s the lamest of excuses. Somehow other malls across the nation, for many years, have been able to get the gist of how much security is needed for increased customer traffic.

The bonus excuse, just for kicks, is that collecting or tracking that cell phone data of yours allows the malls to also know when cleaning crews need to be dispatched more often in certain parts of the shopping center. Yeah, right. Collecting your info from your signals, claims the Promenade Temecula rep, is going to help the mall better respond to the shopper experience.

While the press release for the two malls claims the “survey” is beginning the Black Friday after Thanksgiving, the start date’s a little unclear. Promenade Temecula seems to have been already been gathering shopper data based on their cell phone usage since early November 2011, as of the 12th. Coincidentally, November 12 happened to be the same day the mall was touting “Santa’s Arrival” – obviously expecting a flood of holiday shoppers.

And then there’s the ongoing lack in clarity as to use of the phone tracking technology and practice. While mall rep Kym Espinosa has claimed via the media that she “believes” the Foot Path collection of mobile phone data is a 90-day trial, there seems to be an alternate translation – indicating that collecting your cell phone data while shopping could actually be permanent: “We don’t have a specific date that the [data collection relate to shoppers’ cell phones] test ends. It’s a test. We are exploring a possibility. Even with that said, it’s limited.” But that’s strange, because it would seem Espinosa is a bit confused with the contradiction.

The definition of “limited” includes the concept of being restricted in terms of size or amount – and yet the malls offer no cap on time duration or length, whatsoever. In fact the tracking may become permanent. Sound like the mall’s talking out of both side of it’s mouth? Yeah, it sure does. According to Espinosa, management’s going to determine “usefulness” of the data – and then determine whether that tracking will be permanent. Of course the odds of any entity finding data useless, or at least not useful to some degree, is of cours zero. So it’s not too surprising to discover that the “testing” will determine whether cell phone tracking, of the usage you pay for, is going to extend to other mall properties.

It all makes the mall’s “it’s not that vital” appearance alarming – simply because it’s more than important. Very important – to them. Everyone knows better. But according to Promenade Temecula rep Espinosa: “I don’t even really truly have a feel for it [the Foot Path cell phone tracking], because we just started ‘dating’… They look cute, but they might have bad breath. We haven’t even given them a kiss yet.”

Yeah, well, consider this first kiss leading straight to sex – and a very tight, long-lasting relationship.

If you feel outraged that your data’s being used to help and financially benefit a shopping center, apparently shoppers aren’t supposed to feel that way. It’s all altruistic. Or that’s what the owners or management of Promenade Temecula would prefer you believe: “They just want to do the right thing by this shopping center,” claims Kym Espinosa. “I really am so optimistic. I want this shopping center to be everything it can be. It’s a nice opportunity for us.” And that is a very, very true statement. It certainly is a “nice opportunity” for the malls – a nice opportunity that seems extremely invasive if not truly illegal. That’s the part that seems iffy.

Never fear: Espinosa says individual retailers of the two malls are “supportive” of the process and data collection -- those stores or retailers wanting additional intelligent data. No kidding. Perhaps the rep could mark an example of any company in its right mind that wouldn’t want more data on potential or existing customers. In fact companies pay for data – and data collected by other entities, and they pay well. That, of course, brings the real potential to light – the idea that the shopping malls are collecting your cell phone data and tracking your every move, even while you’re parking, in order to sell potential advertising or make revenue. Regardless what area, your data could equal some serious cash. Just not for you.

Wonder why anyone would be interested in knowing a shopper’s every move from parking to destination? Ever noticed those freestanding signs throughout a mall, otherwise known as ads for stores? If a shopping mall effectively knows your every move, from your car to the retailer’s door – and which subsequent retailers you normally visit – it would surely allow them some good info, to potentially sell indoor billboards or signage for individual stores or retailers. Some targeted advertising, backed by numbers shown on collected data that show a foot path, could garner some serious revenue. And that, of course, brings up a second key factor so highly sought-after in general real estate: that old adage of “location, location, location.”

Espinosa admits the collected data from mobile phone users will aid in the mall bringing in more specialty stores. Just about all the company says on its official website is the pumping of the idea that collected info is to enhance shopper experience -- collected to be used in “marketing, operations, leasing and other programs.” Basically, the info could be used to sway or swoon stores like a Banana Republic or White House, North Face or REI.

What Espinosa’s not saying, but seems a profitable line of revenue, is using that info in order to bring in some serious cash – rental rates to retailers. Think it’s accidental that Prada or Burberry are always in prime, indoor locations where tons of shoppers tend to be milling around – not stuck in “no man’s land,” at the mall’s furthest end? Not exactly.

Upping the ante by knowing exactly what path customers take throughout a mall will logically allow the mall – otherwise known as the renter – to rent off those prime spaces it can prove are prime and hold the most potential for targeted customers passing by on foot through collected data, at higher rates. Yeah, it’s smart. And it’s not to benefit you.

It already seems invasive. The least Promenade Temecula can do is be straight-up about true purpose. If shoppers don’t already feel irate about what seems a drastic invasion of privacy, they may be about perceived misrepresentation. And that may be where consumers should feel most irate -- with claims of “transparency” in what instead appears a veiled lie.

Promenade Temecula’s rep, Kym Espinosa, claims the new tracking technology of its customers is in no way an invasion of privacy because it’s anonymous data. Still, powered-on mobile phones are being tracked via the individual ID associated with the device. And no one's showing proof of that idea, absolutely guaranteeing a lack of hacker interference, or referencing a pertinent statute. Both customers and attorneys may feel otherwise, particularly considering what seems to be a lack of clear notification to mall shoppers.

Via press release, the “Forest City” company states: “In an effort to be totally transparent and open regarding any survey programs being employed signage has been posted at both shopping centers to inform customers that the survey is taking place.” Odd wording, of course, since the term “survey” tends to be perceived as optional to many people. “Tracking” or “data collection” may have been a far more accurate description. But far more interesting than what’s contained in the statement is what’s missing – because it’s big.

It appears the company’s claiming legal aspects are being fulfilled because of signage. But that notification doesn’t seem to be in a clear place and doesn’t seem clear. It’s also interesting to note the company never claims to instruct shoppers how to officially opt out of the “survey” otherwise known as tracking.

According to Espinosa to the media, patrons can opt out. Not everyone watches the news or hears it. Not every shopper at the mall will have the opportunity of being aware of being tracked literally from the parking structure onward. The only option the mall gives for opting out is to physically turn off your cell phone altogether. Now that’s an intriguing concept: In order not to have your personal device, that you personally pay for, accessed by someone you don’t know – in a place where you may spend money – you’re required to shut down the service and device that leads to your own communication. So if you need to be in touch with your kids, spouse, or simply need to know a pant size, apparently you’re out of luck. If that device is on, you’re being tracked. But additionally it doesn’t seem shoppers are really being clearly instructed that’s the case.

Notification of an opt-out method is required by all kinds of companies. It’s taken lawsuit after lawsuit, otherwise known as a huge hit to the wallet for companies, to get across the idea that customers must be notified. Companies like credit cards don’t have the option of not informing customers how to opt out of terms or policy. That would, of course, make it very strange that Promenade Temecula and its sister mall in Virginia don’t seem to be clearly informing mall shoppers about the new tracking – or how to opt out of being tracked. Where’s the signage? Good question.

Where’s that “yellow brick road” of signs informing customers, from the parking garage where they’re first being tracked and or finishing up last-minute phone calls, that they are being tracked? Don’t expect to find them. While businesses like credit cards and the like are required to mail, e-mail or send correspondence via a method that actually reaches a customer, apparently the owners of Promenade Temecula and Short Pump Town Center don’t see that need. Reference to a “survey” may appear, just not in a highly visible place that guarantees shoppers will see the notice. And if it’s anything like the mall’s website, there’s not a reference to opting out.

Apparently the mall sticks some type of reference on its directory. That would be a directory like the ones that appear throughout malls across the nation – the directories many shoppers never see or reference, usually because they already know where they’re going and aren’t lost.

Does that directory also exist at every key point throughout the parking garages, where the mall first starts monitoring shoppers? The likelihood is probably not – but more key is the fact that regular mall shoppers aren’t going to check a directory for location of stores. And someone lost inside of a mall is probably going to be lost, before scoping out directory signs for locations – inside the mall, far after they’ve already begun being tracked with data collected. And that’s the minimal number of people that actually ever bother looking at a mall directory. Even glancing at a directory doesn’t mean a shopper will see the reference, since many people locate the store they’re looking for and simply move on. It’s a bored shopper indeed who scrolls down to read all the print on a directory sign. There’s no better place to bury information – like the info you’d prefer people never see or know exists. And it slaps the face of the standard requirement for notification for which other companies.

For those shoppers fortunate enough to actually see reference to the mall’s recent newer cell phone monitoring activities, don’t necessarily expect notification of how to opt out. That part’s unclear, but if it matches the company’s website, it doesn’t exist. Here’s what the mall says about Foot Path:

“Promenade Temecula is using FootPath Technology
What is FootPath Technology?

FootPath Technology is a unique product that can anonymously collect information on shopping behavior and flow using mobile phones.

How do you collect information?

FootPath Technology consists of a small number of monitoring units installed throughout the center. The units measure already existing signals from shoppers' mobile phones and feeds data to a processing center for analysis.

How will Promenade Temecula use the information to enhance the shopping experience?

The information will be used in our marketing, operations, leasing and other programs.

Our Commitment: Promenade Temecula is committed to protecting your personal information. The FootPath Technology system detects already existing signals from mobile phones but does not collect mobile phone numbers or any other personal information. Shoppers remain anonymous at all times.”

Does it all seem vague? Probably to most. Is there anything notifying shoppers they can opt out of this scenario -- to not participate in being actively tracked via their own devices or phones? That’d be a ‘no,’ at least not on the mall’s own website section where it discusses this new tech. Think this announcement on the company’s website, that it’s specifically directing shoppers to for more information about its activity, contains any more info than the reference it claims to appear on its in-mall directories. Probably not.

It’s an interesting concept that the place where people specifically go, to spend their hard-earned money, seems to feel it has a right to access or use devices or services it doesn’t pay for – and, better yet, to do so in order to track your personal movement. One step better: It can use that garnered info, that it didn’t pay for, to essentially get paid. Yes, it’s brilliant. Not only is your own service and phone being used in your own private time, but conceivably that info can then be turned into cash. Not for you. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. It’s enough to make Madoff jealous.

So why is the mall supposedly bringing this all up, now? It’s claiming “transparency”. According to the mall’s rep, Espinosa: “We’re not trying to do this quietly… We’re very, very open and very transparent.” Well, that seems interesting. The appearance seems more pitch-black. While the Promenade Temecula shopping center talks of November 25 “survey”, reports are that rep Kym Espinosa has stated the California mall’s been tracking shoppers since November 12. Getting the tracking into the media, now, could prove helpful for the mall in two ways: If an unsuspecting Black Friday shoppers should gripe after the holiday shopping experience, it would seem there’s an “I told you so” fallback – that it was announced via the news, so shoppers should’ve known. But the claim of “transparency” is ridiculous. It’s not “transparency” when the first (semi-) openness or public knowledge of any type is made after the fact – literally weeks after an action has already been occurring.

Of course, companies usually consider most any news – that will score it some press exposure – as worthwhile in the media. The Promenade Temecula mall found its way into the press and news right before Black Friday -- effectively getting its name into the minds of shoppers who may not have picked up on the fact that all of the boasting about “enhancing” the shopper experience isn’t really what’s occurring. The best defense, after all, is a good offense.

The rep Kym Espinosa claims the mall received not one customer response or phone call, apart from media or news representatives, as to the company’s Tuesday, November 22, announcement of the tracking technology now (and previously) being used on-site. That’s right, not one. If it sounds like an amazing statistic, it is.

Either there’s an overwhelming consensus of mall shoppers -- whom are wholeheartedly in agreement with having their every move tracked on a cell phone bill that they personally foot – or that lack of communication to the mall comes down to, well, a lack of communication: Since the bulk of shoppers would’ve had no knowledge of the mall’s more recent policy or data collection activities until after an announcement, it just may be that shoppers simply haven’t been notified in able to accurately respond or complain about being monitored.

Espinosa’s tremendous insight as to the current lack of customer backlash is interesting: She apparently believes a greater backlash to the cell phone tracking technology might’ve occurred in a less tech-savvy area with less technologically-savvy customers. Smart. Very smart. Compliment your shopper base to make people believe they’re the special ones – not the people chosen for any privacy invasion, based on relative geographic income or higher spending levels. It’s not that they’re being targeted because they’ve got more money to spend – it’s that they’re smart and therefore accepting. Or perhaps they’ve had no option in that acceptance thus far, simply because they weren’t aware of it.

Virginia shoppers seem to have received benefit of a slightly better heads-up about being tracked or monitored by cell phone. Forest City’s Tuesday announcement happened to coincide with completion of the tracking technology being installed at the company’s Richmond mall location. Perhaps Richmond, Virginia, has tighter legal restrictions than California. That part’s unknown. But what is known is that, even with the announcement, not everyone’s notified in either state, despite an easy way to do so – otherwise known as proper signage to notify on-site shoppers.

I personally wouldn’t set foot in a store or center actively tracking my every move in accordance with a device and monthly service I pay for. It’s very similar to how I feel about being monitored, my information reused without my active choice, and personal info like preferences, e-mail address and birthday being used in exchange for accessing Yahoo! news articles via Facebook. There are many news sources. And there are many shopping centers. Where I choose to set foot, or spend my money, isn’t going to include any invasion of privacy or access of services and property I pay for or own. How do you feel about what’s occurring. Where would you spend your money?


Promenade Temecula
40820 Winchester Road, Suite 2000
Temecula, CA 92591
United States
Phone: (951) 296-0975
Fax: (951) 296-0973
33° 31' 29.2764" N, 117° 9' 11.0664" W
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I think this is helpful for

April 20, 2015 by infoverflow (not verified), 9 years 8 weeks ago

infoverflow's picture

I think this is helpful for the firms to tract and locate whereabouts the customer and how long they spent on that mall.They may be of great advantage by tracking those people to serve them better based on the gathered data.However, it must also consider the rights and privilege of the customer for their privacy..
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