Over the past decade, WiFi has made a major appearance in public places. But as cellular data has become more and more prevalent in the past couple years, one starts to wonder why exactly retailers are so big about having WiFi. The truth is that retailers who provide free WiFi in public places aren’t just providing internet access because they want to be nice to you. They are using it to track you.
When you connect your Android or iPhone, or any device, to a WiFi network, it transmits a unique identifier known as the MAC Address. While this address doesn’t necessarily provide any information about your device or your person, it is completely unique. Retailers can track when and for how long a device is connected to their network, and therefore determine your habits.
The best way to explain how this information might be useful to a retailer is through an example.
Let’s say you’re paying a visit to the Lindenwood Park neighborhood and you connect your phone to a free WiFi network provided by a local computer store. That computer store could gather data about how often you visit, and how long. By combining information about how long you are there with the known radius of the WiFi network, the computer shop could gather data about what you are doing. This information is not used to creep on you, but rather to determine what the best way to market to you is. If it was determined that you regularly connect to the WiFi while visiting a nearby restaurant, the store might consider taking out an ad on a table tent.
This form of tracking has potential to be beneficial to both consumers and retailers alike. However, retailers have not established standards regarding informing consumers about what exactly they track and how they plan to use it. Until this happens, one may want to disable the WiFi on his or her device when away from home. AVG has also developed a “Do Not Track” app that will do this for you automatically.