Shopper privacy critical when using new Cisco DNA Spaces

Software like the new Cisco DNA Spaces can help retailers improve their merchandising and supply chains. But the first priority should be protecting shopper privacy, an expert says.

Retailers considering the use of Cisco's new DNA Spaces or other in-store people-tracking software should be hypersensitive to the privacy implications and disclose to customers in plain English how the gathered data is being used.

This week, the vendor introduced Cisco DNA Spaces as a platform comprising toolkits, an API for integration with third-party software and analytics for data gathered on people's movements within a store or public venues, such as a museum or airport.

The platform is a combination of Cisco's Connected Mobile Experiences product and cloud-based software from July Systems, which Cisco acquired last year. Both systems track people within a facility to draw actionable intelligence from how they behave within the environment.

While software like DNA Spaces can be highly beneficial to retailers, it also carries risks if shoppers learn after the fact that stores are tracking their activity. Accusations of privacy abuse against Facebook, for example, stem from the social media site's lack of transparency in how it monetizes user data.

"What Facebook has done, or what the noise around Facebook has done, is it has made consumers hyperaware of the fact that they have no privacy," said Paula Rosenblum, a managing partner for Retail Systems Research, based in Miami.

The best way to ensure permission is not to track until the shopper opens the retailer's app, which should explain in plain English the data collected and how it is used. "Make sure the customer -- the shopper -- opts in. Make no assumptions," Rosenblum said.

How Cisco DNA Spaces works

DNA Spaces starts tracking shoppers as soon as they log in to a store's Wi-Fi network, either for the first time or because they have used the wireless system in the past and the credentials are still in their keychain. Cisco has integrated DNA Spaces with its Aironet and Meraki wireless access points.

What Facebook has done, or what the noise around Facebook has done, is it has made consumers hyperaware of the fact that they have no privacy.
Paula Rosenblummanaging partner, Retail Systems Research

"If you have Cisco wireless, you'll immediately be able to see what's going on in a physical space," said Gregory Dorai, a product manager at Cisco's enterprise infrastructure solutions group.

Cisco software records people's movements through the IP address on their mobile phone. The application can, for example, determine how long people are in the store, how many times they've returned, the number and location of people in the store and how much time they spend in specific areas.

Actions retailers could take based on the analyzed data include sending promotions to customers as soon as they enter the store or coupons to people lingering in front of a specific group of products. Retailers and other venues could use traffic patterns to determine the impact of a facility's layout.

"If you can use location analytics to figure out footpaths and traffic, you can do a much better job of merchandising, and you can probably improve your supply chain," Rosenblum said.  

DNA Spaces removes extraneous data, so only customer activity information is sent to a third-party application that takes action based on rules set within the Cisco software. For example, people categorized as frequent shoppers could trigger a customer service application to send a text message with special promotions or to direct employees to the shoppers to provide help.

Dorai declined to say which companies are interested in integrating their products with DNA Spaces. Cisco is targeting the software at the business-to-consumer market first, but hospitals, for example, could use the application with their asset management technology in the future to track medical gear.

Cisco is one of many Wi-Fi suppliers that provide technology for tracking people's movements within a store or venue. Others include Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, Extreme Networks, Aerohive and Mist Systems.

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