A pair of recent articles in The New York Times has raised questions about the tracking and surveillance practices used by marketers to gather information about consumers shopping in stores and online. The first article, “Attention, Shoppers: Store is Tracking Your Cell,” discusses new technology that allows retailers “to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones.” According to Times writers Stephanie Clifford and Quentin Hardy, these stores are experimenting with a combination of smartphone tracking, video surveillance and apps to glean data about shoppers “as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.”

“But while consumers seem to have no problem with cookies, profiles and other online tools that let e-commerce sites know who they are and how they shop, some bristle at the physical version, at a time when government surveillance—of telephone calls, Internet activity and Postal Service deliveries— is front and center,” note the authors, who cite several technology experts concerned about how much information is being inferred and shared with others. Retailers, however, have defended the new practices as necessary to remaining competitive in an increasingly online retail environment. “Brick-and-mortar stores have been disadvantaged compared with online retailers, which get people’s digital crumbs,” said one spokesperson for Cisco’s emerging technology group. “[Why… should physical stores] not be able to tell if someone who didn’t buy was put off by prices, or was just coming in from the cold?” See The New York Times, July 15, 2013.

Meanwhile, a second article has reported that the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) Tracking Protection Working Group, which has attempted for years to set “do not track” standards for advertising networks and data brokers, has decreed that “web users should be able to tell advertising networks not to show them targeted advertisements based on their browsing activities—and those companies should comply.” As explained in a July 15, 2013, New York Times article, the working group has not yet determined “what it means when a Web user turns on a Do Not Track signal,” but “the decision on ad targeting moves the group… a step closer to reaching consensus.”

In issuing its ruling, W3C apparently rejected the advertising industry’s request to continue using behavioral tracking data as long as it removed certain information. It must now consider other aspects of the online tracking debate, including whether browser manufacturers should set the Do Not Track signal by default. “We are always going to participate in an effort to get something that is meaningful, makes sense and continues to preserve the benefits to consumers in products and services that our members offer,” a lawyer representing the Digital Advertising Alliance told the Times. “But participating in a process and agreeing to a failed standard are two different things.”