Malls track shoppers’ cell phones

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Attention holiday shoppers: your cell phone may be tracked this year.

Starting on Black Friday and running through New Year’s Day, two U.S. malls — Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. — will track guests’ movements by monitoring the signals from their cell phones.

While the data that’s collected is anonymous, it can follow shoppers’ paths from store to store.

The goal is for stores to answer questions like: How many Nordstrom shoppers also stop at Starbucks? How long do most customers linger in Victoria’s Secret? Are there unpopular spots in the mall that aren’t being visited?

While U.S. malls have long tracked how crowds move throughout their stores, this is the first time they’ve used cell phones.

But obtaining that information comes with privacy concerns.

The management company of both malls, Forest City Commercial Management, says personal data is not being tracked.

“We won’t be looking at singular shoppers,” said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City. “The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to.”

Still, the company is preemptively notifying customers by hanging small signs around the shopping centers. Consumers can opt out by turning off their phones.

The tracking system, called FootPath Technology, works through a series of antennas positioned throughout the shopping center that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone (similar to a computer’s IP address), and tracks its movement throughout the stores.

The system can’t take photos or collect data on what shoppers have purchased. And it doesn’t collect any personal details associated with the ID, like the user’s name or phone number. That information is fiercely protected by mobile carriers, and often can be legally obtained only through a court order.

“We don’t need to know who it is and we don’t need to know anyone’s cell phone number, nor do we want that,” Shriver-Engdahl said.

Manufactured by a British company, Path Intelligence, this technology has already been used in shopping centers in Europe and Australia. And according to Path Intelligence CEO Sharon Biggar, hardly any shoppers decide to opt out.

“It’s just not invasive of privacy,” she said. “There are no risks to privacy, so I don’t see why anyone would opt out.”

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