Smartphones and handheld devices are an integral part of everyone’s life now. Everything has gone mobile these days! Right from our work to social lives, to banking and even shopping. Mobiles have become an inevitable component of our lives. Unlike our earlier mobile devices, which focused on voice-based communications, today’s phones involve varied types of capabilities including computing and sensing. Although these abilities are highly useful at times, these capabilities at times pose some serious privacy concerns. The common components of a mobile phones that businesses or attackers utilise to snoop on users, include sniffing on their mobile phone sensors using the microphone, camera, and GPS receiver in most phones.
Although there are varied systems that use video-cameras, sound waves, or even magnetic fields, to sniff data, the most widely used technique is interception of the Wi-Fi signals emitted by users’ smartphones. Triangulating on that signal can estimate the phone’s position to within a few meters. Some are also involved in collecting a unique identifier, namely a MAC address, for each phone, which allows building behavioural information of customers (Source: TechnologyReview -1).
Businesses today are aware that tracking mobile devices can lead to generation of valuable information about customers, which can then be utilised to serve them better or reach to a much effective group. And this may be precisely why ‘Indoor positioning’ is slowly picking among businesses. U.S. retailers like Family Dollar and American Apparel have also experimented with indoor positioning. Indoor positioning is a practice of locating objects or people wirelessly inside a building using a network of devices or signals emitted by devices.
Nordstrom is also one such business using indoor positioning. They acknowledged that in an attempt to serve their customers better, they are tracking their movements through their stores. They are using specific software to track how much time you spend in specific departments within the store. The sensors within the store collect information from customer smart phones as they attempt to connect to Wi-Fi service (Source: CBS local – 2). Yet another example includes Forest City Enterprises. They triangulate cellular signals to monitor foot traffic in nearly 20 shopping centers they own and/or manage. They claim that the data helped them decide on various crucial aspects that affected user experience.
As far it is for businesses, these interceptions sound highly useful. But how about the users who aren’t aware of their movements being watched over! With the rapid proliferation of applications, the problem of privacy violations based on sensors of mobile devices is expected to grow. Most mobile phone platforms available lately are insufficient to protect their users from such leakage of information. For better privacy across mobile phone users, desirable uses of sensors and good privacy protection solutions are important.
It’s time to keep ourselves posted with such updates. Although businesses tracking us indoor might not be a huge problem, but possibility of techniques being exploited by attackers, continues to prevail. Being on guard always helps. Beware on what kind of information you mobile phones leaks about you!
1 – http://www.technologyreview.com/news/520811/stores-sniff-out-smartphones-to-follow-shoppers/
2 – http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2013/05/07/nordstrom-using-smart-phones-to-track-customers-movements/#.UYpPTbJI-xQ.twitter