The Price of Free Wi-Fi: The Information Exchange
Some months ago, while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, PRI’s the World, a story about Toronto-based Turnstyle Solutions caught my attention. The report focused on data privacy in “public spaces”.
Turnstyle Solutions, a Toronto based data analytics and marketing company, has placed sensors in-and-around about 200 businesses in downtown Toronto. The sensors, each about the size of a deck of cards, tracks signals emitted from Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones. This tracking has allowed Turnstyle Solutions to compile digital profiles of approximately 2 million consumers’ habits as they go about their daily lives. The sensors track the consumers as they travel from pet shops to yoga studios, nightclubs, sporting events, hotels, and restaurants. Turnstyle Solutions uses the data collected by the sensors to analyze foot-traffic patterns, largely within an individual retailer’s properties, to glean insight about customer behavior.
The information is then given back to the participating businesses in weekly reports. Turnstyle’s weekly reports to clients use aggregate numbers and do not include people’s names or other personal information. However, the company does collect the names, ages, genders, and social media profiles of people who log in to their profiles while using the free Wi-Fi service that Turnstyle Solutions provides at local restaurants and coffee shops. It then uses that information, along with the wider foot traffic data, organize consumers into dozens lifestyle categories, including yoga-goers, people who like theater, hipsters and any other metric that might be useful to local businesses.
So why the fuss?
With headlines surrounding this program such as, “The Spies Among Us: Cell Phone Tracking is Big Business” and “Big Brother wants you to shop here” one might think that Turnstyle Solutions is intrusively and forcefully spying on consumers without their consent. The truth of the matter is people need to start taking personal responsibility for their privacy. Nothing in this world is free, including “free” Wi-Fi.
As we move into a truly digital age, people have started to become aware of the tradeoffs in privacy that they make in exchange for the convenience of accessing that magical series of interconnected tubes called the Internet. Today, everything from phones to cameras can be Wi-Fi enabled, allowing for the wireless uploading and downloading of information by individuals and companies. But just because your phone is able to utilize Wi-Fi, doesn’t mean you should. The Internet and Wi-Fi connectivity is a mostly unregulated information technology platform with a virtually unlimited number of uses, from the benign to the malicious. In the same way that you might think twice before dipping your toe in a public pool, the same consideration and hesitation should be used when connecting to a free Wi-Fi signal.
In the end it is our own personal responsibility to understand the risks associated with swimming in that metaphorical public pool. You leave yourself unprotected and open to tracking, like in the case of Turnstyle Solutions sensor program.
For those who cry foul and assert that their privacy is being invaded, need to be stop and take steps to protect themselves before attacking the practices of service providers. Small steps can be taken to eliminate the supposedly intrusive nature of this practice. Simply turning off the setting that automatically connects you to Wi-Fi, whenever you leave the range of a trusted Wi-Fi source (such as the one in your own home), is an easy first step in protecting your privacy. While this practice of tracking may be unsettling to some, it is in many ways beneficial to the consumer, providing micro-marketing data so that local businesses can better serve their customers’ specific needs.
One of Turnstyle Solutions’ clients is Fan Zhang, the owner of the Asian restaurant Happy Child in downtown Toronto explained how the data can be used effectively. “Instead of offering a general promotion that may or may not hit a nerve, we can promote specifically to the customer’s taste,” says Mr. Zhang.Turnstyle Solutions has helped Mr. Zhang tailor his promotions to fit his customers’ lifestyles. After receiving data fromTurnstyle Solutions that his customers frequent gyms, he recently emblazoned workout tank-tops with his restaurant’s logo capitalizing on his newfound appreciation of his customers’ habits.
There are many other benefits for a consumer if a local shop has targeted consumer data. For example, if a coffee shop learns that a large number of its customers also frequent a club that plays a particular genre of music, the shop can then cater to the tastes of its customers by playing their generally preferred music genre. Data can be further analyzed to even have soundtracks set to specific times of the day, catering to different groups of customers based on the temporal indicators of foot traffic patterns. Similarly, if a restaurant owner receives data that his customers also frequent organic grocery stores, the restaurant may want to consider offering organic menu options.
The entire scenario is strikingly similar to how Google and other search engines track a user’s online activities and then generate ads tailored to that specific user’s search and browsing habits. Many people claim to be unhappy with this practice; however, there are some basic steps Internet users can take to minimize their exposure, that many of those same people are not even bothering to take.
Lets be real for just one moment. Does anyone really want to see ads that have nothing to do with them? Wouldn’t you rather see advertisements for products you might actually use? These are questions we can only answer for ourselves: do we value our privacy over convenience so much as to not want this service? For those who claim to not want it but do nothing to prevent tracking, is it all just rhetoric that misdirects attention from the biggest threat to our personal privacy, ourselves?
As consumers in today’s hyper-connected world, we want things immediately. We want to know where the best food is near our current location or where we can find an orthodontist and do dry-cleaning at 3 AM on a Monday night. Business owners today are the same way. This real-life, real-time analytical data allows business owners to know what their customers’ interests are without having to rely on costly and time consuming in person surveying. The opportunity to open up shop and a month later be able to effectively deliver products and services that cater to the wants and needs of local consumers makes products like those offered by Turnstyle Solutions incredibly powerful tools for any small business.
It takes very little effort to take personal responsibility for ones privacy when using public networks. Simple things like actually reading the disclaimers and terms of service for applications, computer programs and Wi-Fi connections, turning off the settings to automatically connect to Wi-Fi or BlueTooth signals, and not signing into password protected sites if you do choose to use an open network. There are a myriad of other steps you can take to keep your digital footprint private.
First and foremost, the dialogue generated by these analytics products needs to be steered back in the direction of a discussion on personal responsibility.