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Big Brother is watching you, and he wants to know if you prefer Ralph Lauren over Tommy Hilfiger. According to the New York Times, Nordstrom recently shuttered a program that tracked the movements of customers throughout its stores by using the Wi-Fi receptors on smartphones like the iPhone, prompting yet another debate in the changing nature of privacy in a digital world. Nordstrom may have ceased this practice, but according to the Times, it's not the only store getting in on the action.
According to Tara Darrow, a spokesperson for Nordstrom, the program was used in 17 stores from September 2012 through May of this year. Reportedly, the program didn't pull any personal information from customers' devices, but followed the signals in order to gain a sense of which products were popular. If visitors congregated in a certain point, Nordstrom might put key products at that spot or make sure they had salespeople around to accommodate the demand for an item.
Source: The New York Times
Yet the Times pointed out that Nordstrom's certainly not the only retailer using the service--other shops include Family Dollar, Cabela's, and even British companies like Mothercare. Nomi, in New York, even matches the signals to individual phones, resulting in personalized recommendations every time you enter the store. This isn't all clandestine; Placed, an app that has reportedly been downloaded more than 500,000 times since last August, does much the same thing and it's completely voluntary.
To its credit, Nordstrom at least announced that users' movements were being tracked, and the resulting complaints had much to do with its decision to end the program, according to Darrow. The service was able to extrapolate much information from that movement, including how long customers spend in a certain aisle or how long they spent looking at a particular product before buying it.
Keep in mind that such a program is meant to mimic the "cookie" tracking system online retails have long used to track their users' preferences. In that view, stores like Nordstrom are simply trying to apply the same principle to brick-and-mortar shops. Based on the reactions the Times detailed, however, most customers seem more willing to accept a website tracking their clicks and searches over a system that, for all we know, tracks us into the dressing rooms.
Follow this article's writer, Leif Johnson, on Twitter.