“Free” WIFI was installed at the Church Street Market place in the summer of 2015. The $50,000.00 system, with support from Burlington Telecom, was paid for by private donors, and the largest chunk chipped in by L.L. Bean.
Now, six months later, WCAX News reports the WIFI network shows 20,000 people visited the Burlington shopping destination on its busiest Saturday.
“We started collecting data in June, so once we start to have a full year of data, we’ll be able to say we we’re up or down in terms of pedestrian traffic. That’s going to help us measure how we’re doing,” said Ron Redmond with Church Street Marketplace.”Sometimes they’ll be thinking it was a bad day, and we can show them, well actually there were 12,000 people on the street that day. It provides them with a little sense of security.”
Not to go all paranoid but privacy concerns are an ongoing worry with “free” WIFI areas. Data storage and collection from WIFI devices is a relatively new area, not subject to uniform privacy protections as cell phone data is supposed to be. In 2014 a California coffee shop ran into privacy complaints when it was discovered that it used tracking analytics that could locate a device as being unique from others in the area. In that way specific conclusions could be drawn from the data: how long an individual device user stayed in an area, in a store, or even where an individual stood. Because of public pressure the coffee shop stopped using the software. Do you get Free WIFI in Burlington and a bell on your collar too?
The goal at Church Street Market Place is to monitor foot traffic and individual store sales. With this data, individual retailers can better analyze the effectiveness of their current and future sales promotions and advertising.
It is too bad it never occurred to WCAX, Vermont’s [self-proclaimed] “best news source” to probe a little deeper and ask about what else might be gained by those businesses that put up $50,000.00 for “free” public WIFI. It is a surprise just plain curiosity wasn’t enough for WCAX News to ask who owns and stores the data collected: the city-owned Burlington Telecom or a private entity. And could whoever does control the data be able to profit from it by sharing (for a price) the stored shopping and traffic marketing information?
The common claim is that most Americans are willing to give up some privacy for discounts and sales. But in a report called the Trade off Fallacy: How Marketers Are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploitation the Annenberg School of Communications found it may actually be a simple matter of resignation.
Americans, the report contends, aren’t happy that they have to give their name, phone number, email address, and other data to get discounts. They do it because they believe marketers will get the data anyway. “Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them,” co-author Joe Turow says.
And should we be equally resigned to WCAX News missing some obvious follow-up questions that would have made a fluffy item into a local news story?