Some 200 retailers in downtown Toronto are using a tech upstart’s technology to track the moves of their customers, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
The news comes amid an ongoing debate over how much information businesses should be allowed to collect about their customers without the customers’ knowledge.
The businesses are using a new service from Toronto startup Turnstyle Solutions, which places tracking technology on wi-fi hotspots at participating businesses. That technology identifies and tracks smartphones’ unique addresses, and does so without phone users’ knowledge.
The Journal article focuses on Happy Child, a recently-opened restaurant on the city’s trendy Queen Street West.
Restaurant owner Fan Zhang “knows that 170 of his customers went clubbing in November. He knows that 250 went to the gym that month, and that 216 came in from Yorkville, an upscale neighborhood,” the Journal reports.
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If you have a color laser printer, then the documents you print may have imperceptible yellow tracking dots that reveal the printer's serial number and the date and time of printing. The dots are used as part of an effort to track counterfeiters, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that there's nothing stopping the government from tracking any document you print, whether or not its related to currency.
According to the book Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom, coupon providers often encode your personal information in the bar codes of digital coupons you print. The information can include your computer's IP address, when you found the coupon, where you redeemed it, and the search terms you used to find it.
According to a chart compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ebook companies often retain your book searches, book purchases and even information on how you're reading the book.
In an interview with Charles Duhigg about his article in The New York Times called "What Does Your Credit-Card Company Know About You?" the reporter said that many credit card companies now have "massive laboratories where they can track what you buy with your card and sort of deduce a lot of things about you, based on those patterns."
Next time you shop at Target, you might want to leave that discount card at home. Many retailers' discount and loyalty cards cards collect purchasing data on customers who use them. The data isn't just used to inundate you with coupons, it may also be used against you by insurance companies.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that many new "smart" electricity meters let utility companies track your power usage "moment by moment." That means your utility company could potentially learn what time you wake up, when you go on vacation, or even more minute details -- like when you run the dishwasher or take a hot bath.
Companies like Verizon and Microsoft have sought to patent processes for monitoring TV watchers. There has also been speculation that Microsoft's soon-to-be-released Xbox One will spy on you via the Kinect, a motion-sensing camera. But that doesn't mean your TV watching habits haven't already been monitored. The Wall Street Journal in 2011 reported that cable companies target ads using TV watchers' personal data.
Zhang recently launched a line of workout tank-tops with his restaurant’s logo, after discovering many of his patrons visit the gym. Another downtown Toronto restaurant, Czehoski, recently hired a retro 80s DJ, after the tracking technology uncovered that a majority of their customers are over 30, the Journal reported.
Turnstyle Solutions describes itself as providing “consumer analytics for the real world.”
Turnstyle founder Devon Wright told the Globe and Mail last year his company's technology levels the playing field between online businesses, which are able to track their customers, and physical businesses which can’t.
The company stresses that the data it collects is anonymized — retailers don’t see the names or phone numbers of the people whose shopping habits are tracked. Customers who don't want to be tracked can turn off location services on their smartphone, though that will cause some apps that depend on location services to stop working.
All the same, the technology adds another dimension to the controversy over businesses’ tracking of customers’ habits.
Canada’s interim privacy commissioner, Chantal Bernier, said this week that Google has violated Canadian privacy law by displaying web ads linked to a person’s health history.
That follows a complaint from a web user who said Google started offering him sleep-aid ads after he searched online for information about sleep apnea. Behavioural ads are allowed in Canada, but not when they involve a person's health history.Bell Canada announced last fall it will start selling information to businesses about Bell customers’ TV viewing, internet use and phone use habits. The privacy commissioner said she has received complaints about the new policy, and is investigating.