Sometimes, something so cool is handled in such a way that it just feels so wrong. On Black Friday, two malls – one in California and one in Virginia – ran a test using a new product from Path Intelligence. The product, FootPath, enables tracking of people and tendencies in a physical location to better understand what might make them enter one store over another. In ways, it is the real-world equivalent of the cookies and other tracking mechanics that have been used online for quite a while. It all sounds great until you realize that in order to opt-out of the program, you must turn off your mobile phone. Are you kidding me? Did the mall operators and Path Intelligence (the product’s developers) really think that would be OK? By making this boneheaded assumption, it has changed the campaign from an interesting pilot to a fiasco.
Sen. Charles Schumer has gotten involved and raised a stink about it – and he doesn’t represent either of the States where the test is taking place! Mall operators have got to know that the mobile phone is a way for families to keep in touch in their malls in the least and their center of communication at the most. Why would they think the option of turning off the phone is OK. The only thing I can figure is that they assumed people would either not notice or not care. It is assumptions like this that will cause much more regulation and dampen development of tools to help businesses and the economy alike.
Path Intelligence had to know this would be an issue. They’re based in the UK – where privacy concerns are even more prudent than in the States. Is that why they ran the test in the States, because they knew there was not a chance that they could get by without being slammed in Europe? What about the tracking of minors? In the States, mobile phones are effectively what walkie-talkies used to be for kids to keep in contact with parents. By blindly tracking them, did Path and the mall operators make the conscious decision that they wouldn’t care about the age of the consumer? It doesn’t matter how vague the information is that you are tracking, people don’t like being tracked – you can’t hide behind levels of privacy – you are either tracking or your not. Own up to it.
It all really stinks. They took an interesting technology execution and shot themselves in the foot. Had they taken the time to really think it through, they probably wouldn’t have to deal with the mess they have gotten themselves into. The Temecula Mall operators have provided a mea culpa of sorts and have additionally given Senator Schumer control (and a platform) of something that he has questionable reason to be involved in.
Of course Path and the mall operators realized they had very little chance of success if they asked people to opt-in (or they were just too smug to think that should be an otion.) With proper thinking and planning, there could have been strong programming to incentivized participation in this pilot program. When looking around the mobile environment, there are check-in applications seemingly popping up every other day. Path should have been offering that option for opt-in – and neither should have thought that turning off a mobile phone is an option.
There are many cool technologies that are looking to see the light of day. Most of them require some form of faith or trust from one of the parties that what they don’t understand is OK. That makes it that much more important to present ethical programming so that people/businesses/brands don’t shy away from the new products for fear of being bitten in the ass. We could go on and on listing out the ways that this thing is crap.
This story has been picked up by outlets as far as the Middle East. We can’t be thinking of these things as insular tests anymore as any items only spread quickly. Of course, the players in this test only wish a positive outcome had spread so quickly. Let’s not hurt ourselves by not thinking through our programs and ensuring as best as possible that we will not do something as un-intelligent as this FootPath pilot program. We owe it not only to our clients/stakeholders, but to ourselves.