Tangled Up in Wireless E-Commerce

The marketing ploy for those new wireless location tracking devices we’ve heard so much about might go something like this:

“Say, Mr. Consumer, let’s say you’re walking down the street in a strange part of the city and you happen to pass by Ray’s Pizzeria, one of many such fine eating establishments in the world. Your head is lost in a swirl of ledger sheets and profit margins — fine businessman that you are, Mr. Consumer — and of course you don’t notice what a great opportunity you’re passing by.” “But your phone does! It starts to beep and ring, and produces a 50 percent off coupon for a large pizza, heavy on the cheese, light on the anchovies and garlic because — wink wink — your phone also knows you’re scheduled for a big date later on down at the Happy Valley bar and grill. For which, by the way, we have directions, in case you need them.

“How would you like that, Mr. Consumer?”

Mixed Blessings

Well, actually, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t like that at all. What is that thing they do to prisoners and endangered species? Oh yeah, electronic tagging. Is there really much of a difference?

Once again, the technocrats and watchdogs must keep an eye on an e-commerce trend where the commerce part of the equation may multiply right into our private lives.

Fashionable Technology?

If wireless is the ongoing revolution, then wireless tracking is the next-next thing. Technically, it’s called location tracking, and the technology can be built into almost anything. That’s the good news and the bad news.

A Dallas company called Sensatex LifeLink has plans to market “communal smart shirts” that can monitor your vital signs, track your nearly exact location and tell you when you’re really starting to smell like a goat.

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers developed the shirt for a project sponsored by the military, which was looking for ways to monitor the physical condition of soldiers during battle. With that kind of resume, the smart shirt could be going places. If only we could be sure of which kinds of places.

Tracking for the Greater Good

There is potential to do great things for mankind with wireless tracking devices. They could help the elderly, the very young, and even the average person when he or she needs to find the nearest cash machine.

There is one company pushing something called “Digital Angel,” a coin-sized, implantable global positioning system that also has biological monitoring capabilities. Digital Angel was originally developed by a cop to help track kidnapped kids, but it could also be used to detect heart problems in elderly patients.

Then there’s BarTrek, a mobile GPS system which Heineken’s “virtual agency” came up with. The device locates and describes for users the great bars (that is, what the company considers great bars) in 15 cities around the world. Heineken recorded 5,000 downloads for BarTrek software and logged 75,000 hits the first month.

More Privacy Worries

The downside is that the darker side of e-commerce — the dreaded marketers — can use such information. Any information that is stored can be sold, and it has been shown that there are all kinds of marketers — DoubleClick comes to mind — willing to sell the personal information of their customers, promises to the contrary.

But marketers aren’t the only threat. Law enforcement officials routinely subpoena telephone records. Think how much more intrusive records of your actual physical movements would be. Divorce attorneys would zero in like circling sharks.

Of course, privacy groups are already clamoring for guidelines, meaning that some sort of standard should emerge after months of melodramatic debate.

I’ll wait.

That’s right, I don’t care how smart the smartest shirt is, I’m content to wait on wireless e-commerce and its many charms. Before I expose my most private biorhythms to this dog-eat-dog world, I’m going to have to see a federal law on the books, in clear and precise language, making the sale of such information illegal.

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