Consumers warn of sneaky Wi-Fi tracking technology companies use to track movements

Big corporations have come up with a genius yet truly terrifying way to control what you do — and it all has to do with your phone.

It seems that almost every store these days has its own WiFi network for shoppers to use.

But experts have warned that consumers should be careful about what they sign up for when browsing the web.

Companies use intelligent software that can track the location of each person’s phone so accurately that it can determine exactly how long they spend looking at certain products on certain shelves.

And it’s not just snooping via WiFi. Some stores are now also using facial recognition technology, which landed last week Kmart, Bunnings and The Good Guys have issues with Choice.

“It’s not fair to anyone trying to keep their personal information private. Every person has the right to maintain his or her privacy,” said internet 2.0 security engineer Rafig Jabrayilov.

“Buying something in a store shouldn’t mean sharing your personal information.”

Businesses can track the physical location of their customers through easily accessible information disseminated via their smartphones.

Apple and Android devices emit radio waves with a diameter between 10 and 20 meters that broadcasts the MAC (media access control) address – a 12-digit code that is unique to and identifies each device.

Stores like Nordstrom in the United States – the focus of a bomb New York Timesarticle – can place sensors in physical stores that return exact information about consumer behavior.

Mr. Jabrayilov said whether the technique was considered PII (personally identifiable information) under the privacy law was “disputable” as it only provided device information.

However, he argued that it was problematic when used in conjunction with facial recognition technology, as together they exposed a significant amount of personal information.

In a feature designed to prevent companies from using MAC address information to obtain consumer data, most Android and iPhone devices now had a feature that made tracking particularly difficult.

“They’ve created a new feature called MAC address randomization that generates fake MAC addresses while you’re in the store,” explains Jabrayilov.

20 MAC addresses are generated for every 40 minutes, he said, making it nearly impossible for the retailer to get accurate information.

He said major Australian retailers were also involved in tracking consumer devices through their camera faces, but he was unable to provide the names of outlets.

“They’re basically trying to identify your gender, which store you stay in more often, how many people pass and enter stores, and what section they stay in more,” Mr Jabrayilov said.

While more was learned about the improved capabilities of companies to obtain information about consumers, Mr. Jabrayilov argued that little was known about how such information was stored and how aggressively it was protected from hackers.

Mr. Jabrayilov emphasized that technology often developed at a faster pace than the legal system, meaning consumers were more at risk of being exploited early in a product’s development.

He compared MAC address tracking to the way shoppers were tracked online, giving companies information about how long customers stayed on their websites, what they spent the most time on, and what products they expressed interest in.

However, there was still a gray area as to whether this fell within the bounds of privacy and human rights laws, Mr Jabrayilov said.

He recommended that consumers check their phone settings to make sure their randomized MAC address feature is enabled.

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