Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Tuesday, October 20, 2020
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Senator Releases Code of Conduct for Retail Tracking 

Whether you’re applying for a job or are simply protective of your Web-browsing history, the mantra has been the same for years: be careful what you put on the Internet. But for those concerned about retailers buying online browsing information to send personalized advertisements their way, browsers have developed a “do not track” standard that’s been in place for years.

But what happens when that tracking extends beyond the virtual world and into brick-and-mortar stores? Already a number of major retailers have turned to analytics vendors to help track everything about potential customers, from social media activity to how they walk through their physical store.

As more retailers take advantage of these tools, however, Senator Chuck Schumer, D., N.Y., has proposed that companies adopt a self-regulatory code of conduct to help protect consumers while providing retailers with valuable data they can use.

The technology the code applies to is mobile location analytics, which uses Wi-Fi or Bluetooth MAC addresses from smartphones to measure where shoppers are within a store and ultimately translate that into shopping patterns.

Already seven major retail analytics vendors have agreed to adhere to the code’s rules: Euclid, iInside, Mexia Interactive, SOLOMO, Radius Networks, Brickstream, and Turnstyle Solutions.

To develop the code, Schumer turned to The Future of Privacy Forum, which describes itself as a “DC think tank that seeks to advance responsible data practices.”

Within the guidelines, the forum says that companies should provide “clear, short, and standardized” privacy notices online and in retail stores explaining what data is being tracked, as well as collaborate to create a one-stop website where shoppers can opt out of having their phones tracked.

Although Schumer has established himself as an enthusiastic or even overzealous defender of consumer privacy in the past, it’s unclear just how effective this self-regulating code will be.

Because the code is voluntary and not legally binding, any company could choose to disregard a rule at their convenience without risking legal action or loss of business. And from a consumer standpoint, there is nothing in the code that prevents a company from actually informing consumers that their data is being tracked, so long as the data is anonymous, stripped of personal identification information, or used in aggregate with other shoppers’ data.

As The Verge writer Carl Franzen points out, this means that although the code itself isn’t predestined for failure, “it’s ultimately only as helpful to consumers as the companies backing it want to be.”

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