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More Stores Tracking Your Cell Phone To Offer Deals

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — How much of your personal information are you willing to give up, to get a deal? It’s a question worth asking as more and more stores tap into technology to track our cell phones.

Two new types of cell phone sensors allow stores to track shoppers, and send them offers. Whether that creates a better customer experience, or a security concern, is open for debate.

Online shopping is a give-and-take proposition. With every click, whether buying or browsing, we give up information. And most sites use that information to make suggestions, or even send us deals.

Now brick-and-mortar stores are trying to do the same thing, by using our cell phones.

“To me, it’s bringing that online experience offline,” said Mark Jensen of Space 150 in downtown Minneapolis, who showed us how the new sensors work.

When WiFi on a phone is switched on, it sends out a signal looking for a WiFi connection. Same with Bluetooth. And the sensors are set up to track those signals.

iBeacon is one of the sensors, created by Apple to track Bluetooth signals. Retailers can use it to locate any phone that downloads a tracking app.

“Personalization and recommendation,” said Jensen, “that’s the benefit, for sure.”

The Twins are using iBeacon at Target Field, for fans who use their “At the Ballpark” app. Macy’s, American Eagle and Apple stores are all experimenting with it to send customers deals or extra information when they get near certain products.

“All of that data helps you understand what your consumer is doing when he or she is in your store,” said digital technology expert Phil McKoy.

If this is starting to sound like the scene at a Gap Store in “Minority Report,” where a store display could sense the identity of a shopper, you’re on the right track, but we’re not there yet.

“Those movies create this aura of big brother and I think people don’t realize you have to opt in,” McKoy said.

Still, some tracking can be done without asking permission. RetailNext uses WiFi scanners to track phones for retailers across the country. It collects the data to analyze shopping patterns, where customers shop, and how long they’re there.

“The retailers aren’t interested in individual specific information,” said RetailNext Vice President Shelley Kohan. “What they’re wanting to know is 1,000 people came into my store and of those people, 600 went down this aisle.”

The company says it can’t identify individual phones, but U.S. Sen. Al Franken isn’t taking any chances.

“This is scary stuff,” he said.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law introduced a bill that would require an opt-in agreement for any phone tracking.

“I think people have a basic right to privacy and that includes where they are,” he said, “their location information.”

If you don’t want to be tracked, it’s easy. Just turn off the WiFi and Bluetooth on your phone. And remember, when you log into free WiFi at a coffee shop or store, you’re opting-in to let them know what you’re surfing.

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