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Location Privacy: What it’s all about and should you opt out

Mobile Location Analytics: Is Big Shopper watching you?

Think mobile device tracking is the domain of Hollywood thrillers and law enforcement? Try the low drama experience of shopping your local mall. Even when you’re not on the phone, texting, or otherwise broadcasting your position with social media, your mobile device can feed location information in a variety of ways.

Mobile Location Analytics (MLA) technology uses Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals from your device to understand consumer traffic patterns on behalf of stores, hotels, airports, and other venues. An analysis of these traffic patterns leads to insights about customer visits, peak periods and “dwell time” that companies can use to improve operational efficiencies and user experience.

Have you ever asked yourself if this is this something you want to share? Making a meaningful choice about location privacy is a part of developing a conscious privacy practice. Location privacy refers to your right to be fully aware of the information being collected (transparency) and to have control over whether location-based services track your information (consent).

The tech behind Mobile Location Analytics

Here’s how it works: Mobile devices with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth capability broadcast a unique identifier known as a "MAC Address." A MAC address is a 12-character string of letters and numbers – it doesn’t contain personal information like your name, email address or street address. MLA companies receive a feed of data from in-store sensors. The MLA companies then scramble the MAC address into a depersonalized “hashed” version – again no personal or sensitive data. The data is used for analytics purposes to glean insights MLA companies share with the retailer or other venue.

Some consumers do not wish their location to be tracked in this way and used for analytics purposes. Location privacy is your choice. You can implement a simple privacy practice by choosing to turn off your mobile device’s Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to prevent your device location from being tracked. You can also choose to opt out of location tracking.

How to opt out of Mobile Location Analytics

The Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and The Wireless Registry recently launched a Web site which offers users the ability to opt out of location tracking.

MLA companies that have agreed to the MLA Code of Conduct will honor your request to opt-out of having your location information collected. In the past, some analytics companies offered an opt out of location tracking, but consumers could only do so on a company-by-company basis. To date, eleven MLA companies have agreed to honor opt-out requests, including: Aislelabs, Brickstream, Euclid, iInside, Measurence, Mexia Interactive, Path Intelligence, Radius Networks, ReadMe Systems, SOLOMO and Turnstyle Solutions. Additional companies are expected to participate.

You can opt out by entering your phones’ Wi-Fi or Bluetooth MAC address here. They recommend you enter both your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth MAC addresses to ensure the opt-out is effective across all participating MLA companies. You don’t have to enter your name or any other personal information to opt out.

But keep in mind: If you give a participating company express permission to collect, use or share your MLA information, this will override your opt-out for that company. Retailer’s apps may include this override, so be aware if you’re concerned.

The MLA Code of Conduct, a self-regulatory framework, is not without its limitations and critics. Todd B. Ruback writes on the IAPP blog, “Privacy Perspectives” that it’s unclear how companies will be transparent about their use of MLA data and consumers’ right to opt-out. Often a store or shopping center will post signage notifying customers that their location will be tracked via their mobile device. Is that really effective (would you even notice or take the time to read another sign)? He also feels the opt-out mechanism is still too cumbersome, and that the promise of enforcement lacks real accountability.

Even with its flaws, I believe it’s a promising step toward location privacy awareness and consumer choice.

How to position location privacy in your privacy practice

So where does location privacy fit in your privacy practice? If you want to dig deeper, review the FPF site which provides more details about location tracking technologies, the information they collect and how it is used, and your options.

Take some time to consider how concerning it is to you that your real-time location information is tracked in this way. Note the difference between technologies that collect and use your personal information (such as name, email address, photos or contacts) and tracking of your mobile device location. Also note the potential benefit of sharing your location information for analytics purposes – it may make your shopping experience more seamless and efficient and even more relevant and personalized. Does it make sense for you to opt out of location tracking?

There’s no right path other than making a conscious decision that aligns with your values. With location privacy, simply make sure you know where you stand.

Share Mindfully.

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