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The Real Deal: the price of 'free' Wi-Fi
ALBANY - If you use free Wi-Fi on your cellphone while browsing around a store, chances are that retailer knows exactly what sites you're visiting, which social networks you're posting to and even the exact spot where you're standing in their store while you do it. "Free" Wi-Fi, isn't all that free.
As you prepare to set out and conquer that holiday shopping list, remember that most retailers are willing to go to great lengths to win your business. "Competition in the retail industry is so steep that we have to find new ways to compete," says Ted Potrikus, the Vice President of the NYS Retail Council. One of those new ways, is tracking consumers every move while their shopping. Many stores now offer free Wi-Fi to customers but if you choose to log on to their network, you're giving up much of your privacy. Buried in the fine print of the many pages of disclosures you click through to save yourself some data and hop on their free Wi-Fi, is normally language that allows the store to see the sites you're visiting and the posts you're making on social media.
"They don't have someone who sits there all day long and reads everybody's information because it'd be too expensive, not that they wouldn't want to go through and look at certain things, but they do try to identify information and build profiles," says Larry Zimbler, an internet privacy expert and owner of Libertecks. Some retailers have even taken it a step further, if you download their app or use their free internet, they physically start tracking your movements around the store, what aisles you walk through, what displays you stop at and for how long. "Yes, it's data collection but they also want to know...did we put the milk in the right spot? Boy, we had that end cap with all those great shoes but the guy walked right past it, you think he would have stopped and looked at the shoes," says Potrikus.
Of course, the next question is what else are retailers doing with the information after they collect it? "There's no way they would sell it to anyone," says Potrikus. Mainly because it's marketing gold to a store and all they have to do to get it, is offer free Wi-Fi which is a much cheaper alternative to paying a research company. Local shoppers CBS6 spoke with though, didn't really like the idea, "It would definitely deter me from using the Wi-Fi, I wouldn't want somebody watching where I'm going and what I'm doing just for the free Wi-Fi, so it's not worth it to me," says Ariane Field of Latham.
And remember, stores are still looking for more ways to reach you, so if you do decide to use anything free they offer, read the disclosures. "What they do is really based on what they can get at each level and in a few years from now, they'll be going for more," says Zimbler. And if you're not interested, "know what you're dealing with and if you're opposed, go to someplace else," Potrikus adds.