Some ideas are so obvious once you hear them that you feel like you already had them yourself. One such is a new application for Wi-Fi from a company called Euclid Analytics.
Euclid’s idea is to provide Google Analytics-style information on foot traffic in retail stores. They implement it using the Wi-Fi on smart phones. This is technologically trivial: if you leave the Wi-Fi on your phone turned on, it will periodically transmit Wi-Fi packets, for example ‘probe requests.’ Every packet transmitted by a device contains a unique identifier for that device, the MAC address. So by gathering this information from a Wi-Fi access point, Euclid can tell how often and for how long each device is in the vicinity. Presumably enough people have Wi-Fi on their phones by now to gather statistically representative data for analytics purposes.
The Euclid technology doesn’t require your opt-in, and it doesn’t need to be tied to Wi-Fi. The concept can trivially be extended to any phone (not just Wi-Fi equipped ones) by using cellular packets rather than Wi-Fi, and for people with no phone, face recognition with in-store cameras. For this kind of application even 90% accuracy on the face recognition would be useful.
One of the only four choices on Euclid’s website’s navigation menu is Privacy. Privacy gets this prominent treatment because the privacy issues raised by this technology are immense.
Gathering this kind of information for one store – anonymous traffic by time, duration of stay, repeat visits and so on doesn’t seem too intrusive on individuals, but Euclid will be tempted to aggregate it across all the stores in the world, and to correlate its data with other data that stores already gather, like point of sale records.
Many technology sophisticates I talk with tell me that it is naive to expect any privacy whatsoever in the Internet age, and I guess this is another example. Euclid will effectively know where you are most of the time, but it won’t know much more than your cellular provider, or any any of the app vendors to whom you have given location permission on your phone.