Stores Are Snooping Into Your Smartphone

Retailers have used various techniques to analyze in-store buying behavior, such as surveys, video surveillance, and buyer reward programs. Some stores have been tapping into the technology in smartphones to track shoppers' actions. New York Times reporter Quentin Hardy discusses how they're doing this and what information they can gather.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Of course, Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and so is Hanukkah, but that's another story. And while you're checking out those holiday bargains, somebody or something may be checking you out. Stores may not only be reaching into your pocket for your cash, but also for your smartphone. Yeah. Some retailers are tracking customers through their phones, using your smartphone to learn about your shopping habits.

You like that? You're upset by that? Is there a way to shop under the radar? What information can stores grab from the phones? Yeah. Quentin Hardy is deputy technology editor at The New York Times. He's based out there in San Francisco, California. Welcome.

QUENTIN HARDY: It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Wow. You know? What are they learning about us from our phones as we're shopping?

HARDY: Well, any number of things, but let's start with the simple stuff. There's a company out here I wrote about called Euclid Analytics. And this was some guys who came out of Google and realized something pretty smart. That is that the phone is signaling cellular towers, but the phone companies also want you to kind of move off when possible. They can't have too many people in the spectrum crowding it out.

They're trying to offload you to Wi-Fi, you know, in-house wireless networks. So these are in a lot of phones. And so the phone is always pinging to see if there's a Wi-Fi antenna, a little Wi-Fi network you can get off of. And that ping, that test is information itself. You can see if somebody's coming by and if they ping that antenna.

And a store might be interested in this, you know, take a little bit of the Euclid software and tell us, well, when they change the display, did more people seem to come into the store? They walk by slower? If you have two antennas, of course, you can triangulate and see whether they actually came into the store and where they went into the store once they got inside.

FLATOW: So they're looking to see where - what parts of the store you're shopping at.

HARDY: That's right.

FLATOW: Are they at the point where if they see that you're standing in front of the socks, they're going to give you an ad on your phone for socks or something?

HARDY: Well, that's something we talked about doing someday. They're not doing that now. But recently, Apple added something called iBeacon, which is another one of these wireless signals. And in this case, you - if you had a certain kind of app you got it onto your phone, yeah, it will offer you a coupon when you come in. And you may be standing in the handbags, and they'll say, hey, 30 percent off handbags. We know you're interested.

FLATOW: Are there even video cameras that can detect the emotion that we're...

HARDY: Oh, my gosh. There are cameras that tell where you went in the store, what the popular aisles are. When you read a digital sign, there might be a camera inside the sign to see if you like it, if you were happy, if the kid liked it, so you stayed. They can tell, you know, the height of the person who looked at it. There are identifiers all over society now, of course. Yesterday, I was at Intel, and they bragged about a company they worked with in China that could identify every license plate going down the highway in 300 milliseconds.

FLATOW: This is, you know, this is beginning to sound like "Minority Report," you know, where - which tracks people's vision...

HARDY: Well, yes. This is the future we've chosen.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...which, you know, what I'm talking about? He was walking through, and they would look at his eye and see what he's looking at, and then an ad would pop up and offer him something to buy.

HARDY: Well, yeah. Philip K. Dick, the guy who wrote that story, was a genius and, you know, satire is based on the present, right? What can I say? There - in many ways, there are elements of this. And that seems sinister and horrifying to some extent, but it's also so very convenient. And that's the way they sell it to you. And it's an interesting thing, Ira. They really put it in the context of Internet shopping.

When I first saw these guys at Euclid, the ones doing the Wi-Fi, they said, we're trying to give to brick-and-mortar stores the same kind of awareness that e-tailers get when you shop online. Because, of course, when you go online, they put cookies in your browser and track you that way. So, the kind of thing people use to find a little bit odd or creepy in the Internet is now a matter of course, and the question becomes, well, how do we get that Internet value out there in the real world, too?

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Talking with Quentin Hardy, deputy technical - technology editor at The New York Times. Let's go to the phones, quick call here to John in Fairfax, Virginia. Hi, John.

JOHN: How do you do?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

JOHN: Wonderful. I was wondering about the RFIDs. My understanding was that they could use those to inventory their stores so they can, presumably, identify when RFIDs - you pick up a shirt or a piece of nugget(ph) or something, and you're walk into the store with this RFID tag, and they can develop a profile on you as you walk to the store and pick stuff up. Can your guest say anything about that?

HARDY: I've not heard of an application like that, but it certainly seems probable.

FLATOW: And how widespread, then, is all of this snooping through your cellphone or the cameras and whatever?

HARDY: I think the question is compared to when and heading to what, it's becoming more and more prevalent. And Nordstrom started it, and it got kind of a bad rap, so they shut down. But they will continue to do consumer education and let people know they're doing this. And in the name of convenience, I think many, many people would accept it. Say you were offered an hour's free parking to go into the store and spend five minutes looking at a display. You know, a lot of people would take that deal and sign over the privacy, wouldn't they?

FLATOW: Yeah. But I bet a lot of people would also want to shut off their phone. Would that work...

HARDY: Well...

FLATOW: ...if you did that?

HARDY: Yes. If you - you can go into the settings and shut off the Wi-Fi, and that alone will work, and you can still get phone calls later in the store. And Euclid does put signs up, the retailers put signs up saying this is going on, that you're being tracked this way.

FLATOW: And companies that are doing this is sort of bragging to Wall Street, saying give us some more money. We can do more of this tracking.

HARDY: Well, they're looking for customers, that's for sure.

FLATOW: Yeah. And where do you see this going? How fast is it moving?

HARDY: It's moving very fast. We are in a position now where we can identify people in 3D. You know, you check into Foursquare, and you're being identified. You check in passively all the time. Your apps are being updated all the time. I had an interesting session the other day. I was giving a lecture in this class, and I asked everybody: How often are you on the Internet? Anybody here on more than three hours a day?

And, you know, a couple people raised their hands. But the real answer is if you have a smartphone, you're on all the time, because you're being watched and apps are being updated and you don't really need to participate to be on the Internet anymore.

FLATOW: Well, chilling thought to some people, I bet.

(LAUGHTER)

HARDY: They'll call it convenience. In many ways, they'll be offering you deals. They'll be...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARDY: ...sending you ads, they say, are more appropriate. And that's how it seems to be proceeding.

FLATOW: All right, Quentin. Thank you very much for enlightening us.

HARDY: Oh, it's a pleasure.

FLATOW: Yeah. Keep that cellphone working. Quentin Hardy, deputy technology editor or The New York Times. We're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk about which mission would you rather have: Curiosity or Cassini? Maybe - well, you won't have the choice, but some people may be making a choice about which one to turn off. Maybe we'll vote on it, see what you think. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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