5 questions to ask your retail clients about GPS tracking and geolocation

Retail tracking generally works by monitoring individuals' movements in or near locations of interest. The specific mechanisms can vary but often involve recording signals emitted by individuals' smartphones, wearables and other wireless accessories.

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Digital marketers know that current smartphone technology can be used to deliver proximity-based, context-aware messages. Businesses can determine when a customer is close to a particular aisle, or when an employee is at a customer location making a delivery. Knowing where your employees are — in real time — gives you the power to help your mobile workforce stay organized, on track and working as a team. Knowing where your customers are can provide just-in-time personalized communications and improve customer service.

The technology underlying location tracking creates both opportunity and uncertainty. Location info can be gathered from a variety of sources, such as cell towers, Wi-Fi access points, bluetooth-enabled devices and connections as well as physical and software (in-app) tracking tech. The trend is to cross-reference that data with individual online activity, across a number of other platforms, including social media. As a result, questions — and answers — about what data is gathered, and for how long, by whom and with whom it can be shared, may vary depending on the technology.

As retailers and marketing consultants roll out GPS tracking, iBeacons and other software tracking tools, those charged with implementing and understating tracking programs and technologies probably have a few questions. How does it work? Does it track data all the time? What do employees need to know? Can I share this with marketing partners?

Here are some answers to common questions about tracking technology.

1. Are you tracking employees, consumers or both?

When an employee clocks out for lunch, a break or at the end of the day, both time tracking and GPS turn off, respecting your employees' personal time.

For consumers, the procedure is less clear, but guided by a 2015 settlement between the FTC and Nomi Technologies, a retail tracking firm that monitors consumers’ movements through stores, over Nomi’s failure to adhere to its opt-out promises.

Nomi's Listen Service does not identify an individual by name but still tracks consumers by monitoring the location of their devices using unique wireless identifiers emitted by the smartphones, wearables and other wireless accessories that consumers carry.

2. What data are you gathering?

In general, location information is used to report your location to other users and associate real-world locations to things like events, points of interests (ATMs, stores, restaurants, etc.).

Geolocation data is gathered using radio frequency location and/or IP/Mac address type information. Besides GPS data, geolocation also may be determined through an Internet Protocol (IP) address, media access control (MAC) address, radio frequency (RF) systems, Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) data and other wireless positioning systems.

In the wrong hands, misuse of this information has led to criminal activity. As PCWorld has reported, “Privacy advocates have already gone to great lengths to raise awareness of the dangers of location sharing. One example is the PleaseRobMe.com website (now retired) which aggregated tweets with location data attached to highlight the dangers of having thieves invade your home when you tweet a distant location.”

As companies crowdsource data tracked across devices and platforms, be sure to comply with other online advertising regulations, including FTC self-regulatory guidance in this area.

3. Has the tracking been disclosed?

State and federal regulators and legislators are increasing their scrutiny of consumer privacy and digital marketing. While many consumers control, and by default consent to, having their location tracked, many do not understand the scope of the permission granted. Most people are not aware that their device information may be captured as they walk by a store or visit an airport.

4. Who else is providing services?

Many current digital marketing strategies involve advertisement-supported content delivery. Third-party service providers offer the resources necessary to generate retail tracking and location data in exchange for delivering ads to users on the network. You must determine whether and to what extent you need to limit the service provider's use of this location data.

5. What are you sharing?

In 2014 testimony before Congress, Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, “Geolocation information divulges intimately personal details of an individual” and needs to be safeguarded.

Remember, you may receive requests for the data from former employees and even law enforcement. Understanding what information is being gathered, stored or shared with third parties is key to complying with legal hold or disclosure requests.

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