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Brick-and-Mortar Retailers Are Newest Customers Buying Your Personal Data


By Charles Miller

It seems as if every time you read the news, some new story reveals more about our dystopian surveillance state. Cameras record us every time we go out in public, advertising giants Google and Yahoo read all our emails, Apple analyzes all of our photos, cell phone providers sell GPS data from our smartphones that track our every movement, and Facebook…better not get me started on that toxic company.

One effect of this is to make me more alert to the rare occasions when I read something in the news highlighting the positive side of our loss of privacy. When I see one of these stories, I am motivated to point it out to readers.

Apple, Google, and your cell phone service provider track the location and every movement of your phone, then sell that data to anyone who wants it. Retailers are finding all kinds of uses for location data from customers’ phones, and some of that is not evil at all.

Recently I went to a website where I looked at the geolocation history Google had retained from my smartphone. It displayed a map showing everywhere I had been. I hovered my mouse over one of the data points on the map: KFC, 16 West Moreland Street, Dublin, Ireland, where I was stationary almost an hour. My brother and I have a rather odd vacation ritual—we have had meals at Kentucky Fried Chicken in a dozen different countries, so now you know what advertisers probably already knew about my habits.

At a time when their industry is losing ground to online shopping, brick-and-mortar retailers are finding that the mostly anonymous geolocation data gleaned from millions of customers’ phones can help them track where and for how long people shop, eat, and see movies—and see where they go before and after. This gives them a better understanding of who their consumers are.

A shopping center in Texas used such information to determine that a lot of shoppers owned pets. It installed pet-friendly water fountains and “babysitting stations,” then saw the time customers spent in the mall rise by an amazing 40 percent. A Pennsylvania shopping center identified a lot of online social media chatter about “girls’ night out” geographically close to its property. It opened a “female-friendly organic concept” called Harvest Seasonal Grill that is said to be outperforming similarly-situated sports bars.

Information technology most certainly is transforming the business world as surely as it has changed all of our personal lives. That is raising privacy concerns, justifiably so, because there have been some egregious abuses of our privacy. The retail businesses mentioned here and elsewhere all claim not to use information that could identify individuals. That is probably true in this case, but they are on the honor system. There are very few laws limiting how anyone can obtain and use our private data.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at)


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