You just wanted to shop for a birthday cake in peace—instead, you got ads that follow you around the internet, and coupons in your email that remember exactly which products you clicked on. So you shut down your computer, stick your hands into your pockets, and walk to the store. Here, among the throngs of shoppers, you may feel more anonymous than you do behind a screen unburdened by cookies and tracking pixels, and you can browse in peace.
Except not really. If you brought your smartphone, its GPS probably tattled on you before you even walked through the doors. Take your phone out and it might start picking up inaudible sounds broadcast throughout the store to pinpoint your location and send you targeted ads. Surveillance cameras hidden in light fixtures track your movement through the aisles, and could even be using facial-recognition software to understand your preferences and habits and attach them to your personal profile.
For the past five years or so, brick-and-mortar retail stores have been trying to catch up with their online counterparts in tracking and personalization. Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying the marketing and advertising industries for decades. He chronicled the most recent developments in retail surveillance for his forthcoming book, “The Aisles Have Eyes,” which will be released by Yale University Press in January.