Disruptive TechSeptember 10, 2019

Can Your Device Keep a Secret?

Playing Devil’s Advocate With Consumer Privacy


[RETHINK Retail] — It knows when you’ve been sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows when your sleep has been bad or good. But for goodness sake, there are examples in which digital privacy has to bend in order for a product to work effectively. 

Approximately 40 percent of adult men and 24 percent of adult women are habitual snorers, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. And Tempur Sealy International created a new bed that is trying to take care of that problem. With the anti-snoring bed comes a morning report from an app that gives a detailed analysis of a snorer’s sleep habits and personalized advice for sleep improvement. In order to receive the analysis, the snorer would have to allow certain settings to track private sleeping behavior.  

Paired sensors on the bed confirm whether the bed should be readjusted to stop snoring. And the snoring party plus potential sleep bedfellows don’t have to do anything but be their usual selves in the bedroom. Forbes reported this Tempur Sealy bed as the first bed to readjust without someone being awake or using a remote to do so. 


The TEMPUR-Ergo Smart Base can detect your partner’s snoring | Photo courtesy of Tempur Sealy


While some would say this is a win-win especially the party who wakes up late nights from the snorer others still worry about where else this information goes. Will this information be shared with third-party websites? Will banner ads start popping up about alternate sleep accessories?  

Even if a little less privacy helps to reduce low oxygen levels, strain on the heart and chronic headaches all of which are associated with snoring that do-gooder retailer still may look like Big Brother to some. While shoppers want to buy useful technology and other kinds of products, they have mixed feelings about what they have to give up to get those results.   

When retail companies aren’t transparent 

In the example above, a user who purchases that mattress has a fair idea of things that are being monitored. But what about those moments when computer users, smartphone users and even in-person shoppers have no idea what information is being shared?  

Using a shopping mall as another example, how often does one read the disclaimer about logging into Wi-Fi at a neighborhood mall? An alert comes up on a smartphone, coaxing a shopper to use a local connection. The shopper clicks the “accept” option. Meanwhile that Wi-Fi connection is keeping track of every single move the smartphone user makes from one store to another. Is that OK too?  

The mall may say so. The disclaimer was there in much smaller font than the Wi-Fi promo and the “accept” button. Or, maybe there was no disclaimer at all. And for some users, transparency may be all it takes for consumers and retailers to be on more trusting ground.  

“When I walk into a store, if you’re tracking me, I want you to tell me,” said Paula Rosenblum, a managing partner and co-founder of Retail Systems Research. “Because if you don’t tell me and I find out later that you did, I won’t go back in your store again. Or, I’ll turn off my phone. It should be very straight up: ‘We offer Wi-Fi and in exchange, we’re going to track you.’ Real simple. The purpose of it is not to do anything other than to better serve you, but it has to be stated in a very short section.”  

But sometimes even in that “very short section,” shoppers may or may not read it. And when privacy is breached, that’s when retailers usually end up in hot water. In a July 2018 study, First Data reports that Internet users trusted financial institutions (46 percent) and healthcare companies (39 percent) more than retailers (8 percent) to keep their private data. Eleven percent said they flat-out would never shop at a store if there was a data breach. Another 43 percent would continue to shop at these risky retailers but would use cash only, making it all the more difficult for retailers to be able to track store points, credit card usage, store items purchased, potential e-marketing opportunities and more.  

Creating a middle ground between marketing and consumer privacy 

There are some state laws related to Internet privacy that attempt to keep consumers’ minds at ease. For example, in California, companies cannot automatically operate voice recognition software during the initial setup or installation of a TV “without prominently informing” the person beforehand.  

Why does something like this matter? Voice recognition software doesn’t just record; sometimes it has an awkward way of sending information on. Just ask the Oregon couple whose hardwood floor conversation was recorded by Alexa and involuntarily sent to the husband’s employees. (And if that couple suddenly started seeing or hearing new ads marketing hardwood floors, that was not by accident.) 

Although the hardwood floor incident is a rare example of how voice recognition software worked against a consumer, it’s a reminder to retailers and digital marketers that consumers must be able to trust them. And in turn, be able to trust that the software will be used only for legal sales purposes.  

So how can retailers improve their business-to-consumer relationships? Here are a few suggestions from consumers. 

  • When cashiers ask customers for their phone numbers “for coupons,” make sure all employees are trained to answer the follow-up question: If I already get coupons without you having my phone number, what else do you do with my contact information? 
  • Make sure all store point cards and store credit cards provide full disclosure about how buying patterns are used within the store. And if used by third parties, how do they use them? 
  • Consider being even more transparent with marketing. Facebook’s settings allow users to confirm advertisers and businesses who uploaded a list with each user’s info for advertising purposes. Retailers may also want to consider letting users know where else their information will go to avoid being affiliated with ads that they do not like nor want.  
  • Always have an “opt out” option on email lists and keep the checkmark in the subscription box off so the user has to opt in to receive additional promotions.  

While consumers are not in denial about retailers and their partners wanting to be profitable, limits on behavioral data and letting consumers weigh in on what they do and don’t want to be advertised to them goes a long way with helping them sleep at night, too.