Protecting your privacy when out shopping


October 5, 2017 by

Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash

Shopping malls are gathering more information about you when you shop than you ever suspected. Here are some ways to protect yourself.

Gathering of “big data” has gone out of control. The amount of insight there is into our personal lives is appalling. Short of throwing away all of your electronics and going off the grid, it is impossible to fully stop the mining of our personal information.

I covered a lot of this in my posting about Maintaining online privacy. However, there are additional ways companies are spying on us. This article discusses how to protect your privacy when at a shopping mall.

The problem

The article How Westfield is collecting large amounts of data from shoppers discusses how shopping malls are collecting and using our personal information in detail. Here are the key points:

  • Your implied consent to data gathering via wifi, BlueTooth, and near field communication (NFC) is given by walking into the mall. It is private property and you are entering it by your own choice.
  • You grant express (legal) consent to deeper data gathering when signing in to a free wifi network. While using a personal VPN, as described in Maintaining online privacy will prevent them from reading and recording your data traffic, they can still identify your device and potentially figure out who you are.
  • Having wifi and BlueTooth on is enough for them to gather information about you. Networks and things like computerized ad boards ping your device to detect its presence, regardless of whether or not you connect to them. Device ID information returned from these pings are used to identify your device and determine your location in the building. If you have logged in to their networks in the past, they already know who you are based on your device ID.
  • Cameras on ad boards and mall directories capture your image. These images, combined with your device ID, can be used to tie your identity to your face. They can also determine your demographic, if you are looking at the screen, and if you are happy or sad. Super creepy!

Do they sell all this information? There is money to be made, draw your own conclusion.

So, what can you do?

While there is not much you can reasonably do to prevent visual capture and analysis of your image, you can prevent them from communicating with your digital devices:

  • Don’t sign in for free wifi. Using cellular data is more secure.
  • Turn off wifi and BlueTooth on your devices before entering the shopping mall.

    Admittedly, shutting down BlueTooth is a tough one when using connected personal devices (headphones, fitness trackers, smart watches, etc.). Since BlueTooth has shorter range, at least leaving it on isn’t exposing you as much as wifi. There is also potentially less information about you that they can gather via BlueTooth.
  • Use a personal VPN to keep prying eyes from your data traffic (Internet, applications, and email).
  • There is nothing to prevent near field communication (NFC) with your device short of putting it in a Faraday Bag that blocks all signals. (NFC does not provide much information unless you tell it to and its useful range is extremely short (typically under 12 inches), so your exposure is limited.)

Have something to say about digital privacy? Join the digital privacy discussion.

It’s getting ugly out there! Shop safe!

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