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Lawmakers Weigh Rules for Stores Tracking Shoppers Via Wi-Fi

Maryland retailers would be banned from using consumer cellphone Wi-Fi signals to track their shopping habits, if a bill in the legislature is enacted.

A bill proposed to the House Economics Committee on Friday would prohibit Maryland retailers from using consumer cellphone Wi-Fi signals to track their shopping habits unless consumers are warned at store entrances. File|Patch
A bill proposed to the House Economics Committee on Friday would prohibit Maryland retailers from using consumer cellphone Wi-Fi signals to track their shopping habits unless consumers are warned at store entrances. File|Patch

Editor's Note: Corrections were made to this story on Feb. 25, changing the attribution of a quote and correcting a misspelled name. 

By Patrick Farrell

Capital News Service

A bill proposed to the House Economics Committee on Friday would prohibit Maryland retailers from using consumer cellphone Wi-Fi signals to track their shopping habits, unless merchants post notices at store entrances.

Using a customer’s Wi-Fi signal, retailers are able to track individual shopping habits - from venue to venue - and then use this data to provide businesses with detailed audience reports.

“You would be surprised how much information stores know about you as soon as you walk in the door,” said Delegate Sam Arora, D-Montgomery.

Two companies - Turnstyle Solutions and RetailNext - are currently paving the way for this new form of customer analytics, said Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.

These tracking technologies allow retailers to identify repeat customers and observe consumers walk through stores, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

While the proposed bill would do nothing to end these practices, it would require stores to display notices at every entrance to alert customers that their shopping habits are being tracked.

“We certainly know [retailers] have loyalty cards… but that’s something you opt into,” White said.

With posted notices, customers would essentially be able to opt-out by turning off their cellphone Wi-Fi.

Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retail Association, argued against the bill, warning of the possibility of “unintended consequences” to posting notices.

Donoho cited high-levels of retail theft in Baltimore, though lawmakers questions and comments indicated they were skeptical as to how posting notices would introduce a threat to security in retail establishments.

The proposal highlights what seems to be a growing trend in Annapolis: as technology rapidly advances, lawmakers must take notice - and keep up. The legislature is weighing other privacy matters this year, including how long law enforcement agencies can retain license plate tracking records.

Bryan Harz February 25, 2014 at 11:28 AM
WOW, I guess I will need to consciously turn my phones Wi-Fi off when I go shopping. It's unclear if the company captures personal data, but it's still pretty creepy.
Sam Arora February 26, 2014 at 07:10 PM
The Patch subheadline to this CNS story is incorrect. This bill merely requires retailers to post notice if they are using consumers' cell phones to gather data on them in the store; it does not prohibit the practice.

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