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Guest Editorial: Is there nothing private anymore?

Privacy is fast becoming a relic of the past.

Giant corporations, consumer monitoring companies and big government are all scrutinizing practically everything a person does these days, from making cell phone calls to sending e-mails to clicking on websites.

And the scary part is we often don’t even know it.

Because technology has advanced so quickly and has become so all-encompassing, the average person is clueless to the high-tech snooping.

Take shopping, for example. Some major retailers are now using technology to track consumers the second they come into the store. But not with security cameras; they’re getting the information from the shopper’s own phones.

As reported by NBC 5 Chicago, when a shopper enters some stores, technology taps into the smartphone’s WiFi signal. That allows the retailer to physically track a shopper’s movement through the store. It records how long customers linger, where they’ve been and what catches their eye.

The station polled some shoppers about the practice and received startled reactions: “I’ve never heard about it.” “That freaks me out.” “That’s an invasion of my privacy.”

According to the NBC 5 report, Nordstrom was using the shopper tracking system but stopped. Target acknowledged it uses the system and Family Dollar said it’s trying it out. Of 21 retailers the station questioned, seven declined to comment. Those that did, including Walgreens and Sears, all said they do not track shoppers with WiFi signals.

So what are they using the information for? Marketing. The company that sells the service, Euclid Analytics, said 30 national retailers use the technology but wouldn’t identify them. This wasn’t just a “sampling” of shoppers that were being monitored. More than 50 million shoppers were reportedly tracked.

The company maintains that none of the data analyzed is personal. Privacy experts, however, see it differently.

“There is no consent,” Chicago Kent School Of Law Dean Harold Krent told NBC 5. “There is no meaningful give-and-take about whether a consumer wants to be tracked. So that is the risk here, the danger.”

He was also concerned about what will ultimately happen with the information. “How long will it last?” he asked. “When will it be destroyed? Will it be connected or meshed with data sets in other places?”

U.S. Senator Al Franken, D-Minnesota, is trying to address the issue and he recently contacted Euclid Analytics.

“People have a fundamental right to privacy. Neglecting to ask consumers for their permission to track them violates that,” Franken said. He plans to reintroduce a bill this fall that would require companies to get that permission.

It’s a good start. Consumers should support Franken’s effort and start showing some outrage about their privacy rights being stripped away. Without some kind of public outcry, the “shopper spying” will likely continue or morph into other violations of privacy.

In the meantime, there’s a way to stop the stores from tracking your every move: Before you go through the door, turn off the WiFi capability of your phone. Maybe when it appears that no one is coming in, the stores will get the message.

This editorial was originally published in the Alexandria Echo Press, a Forum Communications publication. It represents the views of the Echo Press editorial team.