25 Mar 2014

More than meets the eye: phones at the heart of retail technology

There’s an iconic sequence in the film Minority Report in which Tom Cruise’s character walks through a shopping mall, bombarded by personalised adverts triggered by scans of his retinas.

Iris recognition technology seems unlikely to hit the high street any time soon – especially after its withdrawal from use at several British airports. But do ad companies need our irises when our phones have become, effectively, an extension of our selves?

Each handset has a unique ID, and in my report tonight we show how wireless internet companies are gathering up those IDs and using them to monitor where people go.

The technology can track a phone down to a few metres. The system does not get people’s names or phone numbers, and the company behind it insists what it gathers is not personal information.

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But the reality is that our phones are often with us day and night, and are now central to a rapidly growth in retail technology.

For years, the high street has looked with envy at the kind of data online retailers can gather. Amazon, for example, aims to know every product every customer has looked at, how close they got to buying it, and what they purchased instead.

It’s the kind of data physical shops could only dream of – until now. Retailers believe mobile devices could be the key to a flood of shopper data, and are embracing new mobile technologies with gusto.

It’s not just wi-fi networks hoovering up data. We’re now seeing the emergence of Bluetooth beacons; these tiny discs can be littered across a shop, and if a passer-by is running the right app, the beacon triggers a message on their phone.

So far, so smart. But there’s a higher-order problem here: it’s all very well knowing that phone ID E0:C9:7A:83:7B:0A has just walked past the two-for-one pizza promotion – but how do you know whether that phone’s owner will be interested in getting a text message about the offer?

The trick (and this is where it gets metaphysical) is that names don’t matter. Retailers and advertisers don’t need to know that I, Geoff White, have a penchant for Dr Oetker’s Quattro Formaggio. All they need is a unique identifier that they can link to a pizza preference. It could be a phone’s unique ID, it could be the login I used when installing an app on my phone, it could be my Google account name.

Behind the neat technology hitting our high streets is a busy industry of companies vying to be the ultimate source of consumer data – but it all hinges on having one single identifier for each consumer. And that’s why your phone’s ID matters.

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