This App Tracks You While You Shop

What's to come?
Jan. 28 2014 8:01 AM

Track Star

This app follows you while you shop—and it needs a clearer privacy policy.

Young woman looking in shop window, side view.
It knows when you've been shopping.

Photo by Maria Teijeiro/Thinkstock

Last year, Apple quietly introduced iBeacon into location services on iOS 7. It's a technology that can track your position and movements in places like stores and restaurants. It functions kind of like GPS but uses more energy-efficient Bluetooth communication. When you install a third-party app that uses iBeacon, a destination (like a store or a stadium) can know when you enter, where you go, what you look at, and when you leave.

Apps that have access to this kind of tracking data, combined with other personal information, are powerful monitoring tools. Few of us would allow the police or government to track us at this level. What could an app offer that would make us hand over all this data? Discounts, perhaps?

Each person is likely to have a different answer. In every case, though, the data is valuable and there are real risks to sharing it. Choosing to share should be based on a clear understanding of how our data will be collected, used, and passed around. Unfortunately, privacy policies—in this domain and many others—are written to obfuscate and sometimes they are outright misleading.

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Take as an example Shopkick, one of the most popular apps starting to use iBeacon. It has more than 6 million users, and, based on its high ratings in the App Store, a lot of them are fans. I'm not singling it out—its policies are fairly typical of what you would see from other apps in this category.

Shopkick’s big draw is that you are rewarded with “kicks” for all kinds of actions, like checking in at a store or scanning an item. Get enough kicks, and you can exchange them for gift cards or other rewards. To qualify for these rewards, you are required to give Shopkick your cellphone number, ZIP code, email, and access to your phone’s microphone (more on that shortly). And if you are using Shopkick at a store with iBeacon, it also knows where you are in a store, where you linger, and what products you are interested in.

Are the perks Shopkick offers worth the privacy trade-off? To answer that, we need to know what information the app collects, which is described in its privacy policy. That includes what it calls “Non-Personally Identifiable Information,” or data that can’t be associated with you by name. This “Non-Personally Identifiable Information” includes things like your birthday, gender, all the location data it gets from GPS and iBeacon, and the commercials you watch on TV.

Did you catch that last one? How can it know what commercials you watch on TV? It accesses your phone's microphone and listens. From the privacy policy:

[T]he shopkick application may ask you to open the app while you are watching TV, and then we may record or analyze the audio signal from the television set via the shopkick app and your cell phone’s microphone, to determine the commercial, and/or program, including the date and/or time)

For users to qualify for rewards—the main motivation for using Shopkick—they are required to grant mic access to the app.

Shopkick also collects “Personally Identifiable” information, like “your name, mobile phone number, other phone numbers, email address, home address.” You may provide some of it, but it can also come from stores and white pages providers. If you have associated the app with a loyalty card, or if the information’s in an online database, Shopkick may be able to access it even if you don’t explicitly choose to share it.

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