Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 14, 2016

‘Mall Tracking’ Update: Wells Fargo Plans a Big Push

Lawmakers and regulators have been keeping a firm eye on “mall tracking,” or the practice of using shoppers’ smartphones to keep track of their movements or send retail information out to them. This week a big bank announced that it’s getting into the game in a big way, while an official for the Federal Trade Commission offered some more insight into how smartphones make it relatively easy.

Wells Fargo announced Wednesday that it’s developing a suit of technologies — electronic beacons, analytics tools for retailers and an app for consumers —  with the intention of helping merchants address decreases in foot traffic in bricks-and-mortar stores.

The technology would “give retailers a competitive tool by allowing them to acknowledge customers and offer promotional coupons in real time, and mall operators the ability to engage consumers electronically with loyalty programs,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

How might some of that technology work? The chief technology officer for the Federal Trade Commission, one of the government’s primary watchdog agencies for consumer affairs, told NPR this week that smartphones have a built-in behavior that allows them to be traced at close range.

“So what a lot of people may not realize is that, in order for your phone to make a connection on the Internet, it’s constantly sending out a unique number that’s embedded in that phone, called the MAC address, to say, hey, any Wi-Fis out there? I’m number, say, 124 – though the numbers are a little longer and more complicated. Will you connect with me?” the FTC’s Latanya Sweeney said on “All Things Considered” on Monday.

“And by using these constant probe requests by the phone looking for Wi-Fis, you could actually track where that phone has been, how often that phone comes there, down to a few feet,” she said. “Which is much finer than, say, the GPS location that your phone might be giving.”

The audio of the interview with Sweeney can be launched here.

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