Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tracking people: the innocent have nothing to fear

In the Tom Cruise sci-fi film Minority Report, I was always tickled by the scene where his character enters a Gap and is greeted by an automatic voice that recognizes him as he enters the store and attempts to convince him they have new styles in stock he might like. It was funny because of the total irrelevance of the messaging to the character's context for being in the store (if you haven;t seen the movie I will just say that he had weightier matters on his mind). The technology to make such a marketing experience possible, though, wasn't far fetched at all. 

In fact, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been employed as a way to track cows, commodities, and other inanimate objects for years. But tracking people, in public, well somehow that seemed scary and inevitable at the same time. And so here we are.

Alliance Tech is a company specializing in the application of affordable RFID-based ID systems for use in tradeshows. Tradeshow marketers can set up a series of scanners around the tradeshow floor that will read the presence of a tiny wireless chip embedded in attendee passes or badges. And unlike other forms of badge swiping, the wearer (or shall we say, conference cattle?) don't have to take any action for their movements to be registered.

Alliance says its systems don't store personal data--in the same database--as that used at the conference and that the number of people opting out is less than 2%.  I'll have to trust them that the opt-out process is clear and straightforward. For conference marketers, the data can be used much like web traffic reports--you might know which prospect company's employees stopped by your booth but didn't talk to anyone (sort of like a bounce rate in web parlance). You might be able to see what other booths they visited (i.e., a click path) might even decide to greet certain prospects by name and make them an offer of information, material, or dinner.

The scanners rent for $1000 each for a typical two-day convention. The company has plans to rent to malls whose high-end customers (is mall and high-end an oxymoron?) might be willing to sell their privacy for a few dollars long as it's their choice.

In the transparent society enabled by cheap-technology, we may have finally found  Big Brother...surprisingly to some he looks alot like Us.

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