Usage and Privacy Concerns of Ubiquitous Connections in Retail Industry

It has become essential for organizations across the world to deploy the latest technology and information systems to understand customers and answer real business problems whilst delivering the best service to their customers. As economies are moving towards a more digitalized ecosystem, the value of data has grown exponentially. Businesses acquire data from a number of sources such as social media sites, online polls, cookies, etc., to assess online activities, find new ways to target customers and monetize the data. Such data often includes personal and sensitive personal information, which if compromised or misused can cause immense harm and thereby a threat to privacy.

Usage and Privacy Concerns of Ubiquitous Connections in Retail Industry

Though privacy has not been clearly defined because of its many forms and versions, it can be said that it is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively. Privacy as a concept remains important as if not taken care of can be used as a tool to exercise control over humans. With the increase of technological developments and its incorporation in the real world, the threats to privacy have increased in terms of both data and physical privacy.

The ubiquitous connectivity is providing customers with a level of convenience for which they are even willing to provide data to a number of companies and organizations. Ubiquitous systems gather a great deal of sensitive personal data, and managing this data involves navigating legal, technical and ethical challenges. Ubiquitous information systems (UBIS) adapt current Information System thinking to explicitly differentiate technology between hardware devices and software components in companies across the globe. The use of such technology in sectors with sensitive data is raising privacy concerns and posing threats on the safety of the information such as shopping history, internet sites browsed, the current location of device etc. collected by these systems. In the world of ubiquitous computing, computational artefacts embedded in the environment continuously sense the activities of customers and provide services accordingly and such a world presents significant privacy dilemmas as personal information may take on many forms in the ubiquitous environment. For example, some mobile ubiquitous applications are capable of identifying and sharing a user’s location thereby exposing its user to serious privacy risk, should such information fall into the wrong hands.

Ubiquitous connection is central to many sectors of society and the various industries functioning within. One of these industries impacted by the ubiquity in information systems is the retail industry. The retail industry today is going through a revolution of digitalization and transformational change. Continuous innovation and new technology are now critical in helping retailers create a sustainable competitive advantage. To deliver integrated innovation, companies need a profound level of insight into people’s lives to provide them with personalized seamless retail experience. Delivering convenience and seamless experiences depend heavily on providing customers with experiences that are personalized to their needs and tastes which requires understanding the customers through the analysis of huge amounts of data. Due to the increasing ubiquity and scale of the global online marketplaces, retailers are turning to data to make better business decisions and guide customer marketing initiatives. Companies are now able to access a vast amount of information with a couple of clicks on the mouse. Facebook, for instance, tracks both its users and nonusers on other sites and apps by collecting biometric facial data without the user’s explicit ‘opt-in’ consent. Furthermore, when internet users venture to other sites, Facebook can still monitor their activities with software like its ubiquitous ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons, and something called Facebook pixel. The company was also a victim of a recent breach called the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal 2018, that was a result of lack of transparency about the opt-in and opt-out options where Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political purposes. The scandal was not a ‘data breach’ as this was exactly how Facebook’s infrastructure was designed to work.

Furthermore, the ‘Internet of Things’ has created a network between internet-connected physical devices. Combined with current and expected ubiquity and pervasiveness of connected smart devices it gives ground to application in many areas, including retail. Now that retailers have entered buyer’s homes through such devices, the potential for a breach feels much more personal to the victim. The ubiquity of interconnected sensors through the IoT adds layers of risk that people can’t easily understand which thereby leads to data and physical privacy concerns. Furthermore, IoT applications in retail require heavy interaction with users which can be done through advanced lighting installations, speakers or video screens. This becomes a threat to privacy as private information is exchanged between the system and its user. Another privacy concern rises due to the lack of transparency of these technologies as customers are not made aware of when and how their personal data is collected, the purposes for which their personal data are processed and the entities to whom the data is communicated.

The result of increased technology to facilitate the shopping experience requires the collection of data which is collected both by newer in-store technologies and through online websites. Online retail privacy threats are growing day by day with a million companies facing data breaches every day. One of which was when the personal information of a number of Uber users and drivers was exposed, revealing their names, email addresses and mobile numbers. Retailer websites collect information about every item looked at, what is ordered, and the time spent on the website. In addition, customers are traced by tiny files and programs called ‘cookies’ when visiting online web pages. The use of these by retailers gives access to data files holding various bits of information about such customers. This method for the collection of data poses a threat of violation of privacy as a result of companies gaining access to all that information about the customer which can help companies not only personalize ads, correspondence, and offers, but also put together independently anonymous information to identify an individual. Companies like Amazon use this data as a recommendation mechanism by monitoring everything that their customers do transitionally and even noting information on the purchases that are not. The company also uses personal information through IS technological tools to sell advertisements and fill up the “suggested” column.

The privacy concerns with regard to the ubiquitous connection and digitalization, not only pose a threat to data privacy but also physical privacy. Today’s brick and mortar retail stores are leveraging digital technology to enhance the customer shopping experience. These new types of brick and mortar stores have similar data collection processes to cyberspace that are hidden within the architecture, they are the ‘eStores’. Customer’s movements are closely tracked both by in-store and online retailers. The technology used inside stores is not only tracking the goods, but also tracking every movement people inside and outside of the store are making. These technologies generally use the Wi-Fi on a mobile device to connect to a customer, but sometimes the customer does not even have to connect to the store’s server to be tracked. One of the most commonly used trackers is Euclid Analytics (Euclid) which detects foot traffic within retail locations connecting to shoppers’ smartphones through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth technology. The technology operates without requiring users to consent to being tracked, which is why it poses a threat of potential privacy-focused backlash among retailers.

Furthermore, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is an important building block of ubiquitous computing and in retail is a tool which seeks to manage supply chains and provide products and services to consumers. There is a growing concern for data privacy among businesses and consumers, because of the possible unwanted revelation of confidential or personal data stored within RFID devices. Evidence shows that the introduction of RFID on products has met criticism in the press with regard to privacy threats because of which retailers hesitate about whether and how to fully launch the technology in areas where it interfaces with consumers. For example, IBM uses RFID tags to track and identify objects, however, the company believes there are privacy concerns in the attachment of these tags as they can be covertly monitored, spoofed, or tampered with. In addition, recognizing customers individually and automatically upon arrival, tracking them through the store, observing their interactions with products and offering them personalized advertisements are all activities which can be realized through RFID, but have the potential to be viewed as privacy intrusive.

To summarize, this data-centric world has and will continue to negatively impact the ability and freedom of individuals to exercise their freedom of speech and challenge those in power as well as encroaching on people’s privacy. Therefore, retailers must aim to address the issue relating to the privacy of their customers. This could be done by providing customers with ways to opt-out of in-store tracking in online communications, increasing data security, or tightening limits on how long data can be stored. In addition, there are a number of laws and policies undertaken by both the public and private sectors to address the issue. Countries like UK and India have recently incorporated laws that seek to monitor the threats to privacy of individuals. Furthermore, companies are also taking strict actions against the violation of privacy and seeking to provide more transparency to their customers. For example, recently a federal judge asked Apple to provide reasonable technical assistance and help the FBI unlock an iPhone belonging to a culprit. Apple declined to help the FBI as this required the company to overhaul the system that disables the iPhone after a few unsuccessful password attempts and once this feature kicked it, all that data on the phone would be inaccessible. Furthermore, to address the issue of RFID privacy in retail, IBM, developed a system limiting the distance a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip tag can transmit information from retail goods. The Clipped Tag system allowed consumers to disable RFID tags on items after purchase, whilst enabling companies to use the information on the tag to identify returned products.

In conclusion, information systems and the ubiquity in technologies is providing for every individual citizen to capture and share information and in return delivering maximum convenience which they perhaps did not know could exist. Retailers across the globe are collecting more and more information for delivering a personalized service both in-store and online. New technology may provide increased convenience or security at the expense of privacy, and many people may find the trade-off worthwhile. Customers today are willing to trade their information away for the increased freedom that comes with convenience. The challenge is to manage that increasing flow of information whilst addressing the concern of privacy. The ubiquitous connection makes us consumers more predictable as systems can co-relate location, context and behaviors patterns in order to be omnipresent, which is why the threat to privacy is at its most today. Even though there has been action taken by government bodies and companies to address the issue of privacy, it still lacks the ability to take over the speed of which digitalization is occurring today.

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