Church Street Wi-Fi, Quietly Logging Nearby Devices, Raises Privacy Concerns

Mar 16, 2016

Anyone who has brought a Wi-Fi-enabled device to Church Street in Burlington recently has helped with market research for businesses along the pedestrian mall, according to the top official in charge of the Church Street Marketplace.

Ron Redmond, the executive director of the Church Street Marketplace, says the antennae free public Wi-Fi service on Church Street doubles as a sort of pedestrian counter. The Wi-Fi network does this by keeping track of how many Wi-Fi enabled devices are within range, how strong their signal is and now long the device stays nearby.

Redmond says the technology is part of his office’s ongoing efforts to give Church Street businesses the tools they need to succeed. He says the system was helpful, for example, in determining that the shooting on Church Street late last year didn’t have much of an impact on First Night attendance as measured by the number of Wi-Fi devices in the Church Street area.

Redmond says it can also help businesses figure out how their own numbers fluctuate in comparison to overall traffic on Church Street.

“We had one store in particular who looked at the pedestrian data that we were providing and said ‘Oh my God, we’re doing terrible. In terms of our foot traffic versus what’s out on the street, it’s practically negligible,’” Redmond said Tuesday. “Which caused them to make some changes. They did some drastic things and it actually helped them. That’s exactly what we wanted to have happen. That’s really cool.”

Redmond says that kind of data-driven business strategy can help Church Street retailers compete with suburban box stores and malls as well as online sales.

"What these data are doing is it's giving us the ability to give [Church Street businesses] counts of who's on the street." - Ron Redmond, Church Street Marketplace

Bradley Holt, a prominent member of Burlington’s tech community, expressed concerns that the city hasn’t done enough to inform people about this effort and hasn’t sufficiently addressed privacy concerns raised by collecting information from thousands of devices without owners’ knowledge or consent. The system has been in operation for months, but wasn't widely known before the Burlington Free Press reported on it Tuesday.

Redmond says he isn’t able to access any device-level data, which could allow rough tracking of specific devices for the entire length of Church Street. He says that’s not why his office wanted the technology in the first place; the marketplace’s goals were simpler.

“What these data are doing is it’s giving us the ability to give [businesses in Church Street] counts of who’s on the street,” he said. “They can then take that and compare that against their own store counts.”

In other words, Redmond’s office isn’t using this data to try to figure out which stores consumers visit, how they travel around Church Street or which devices are regular customers and which are new. Officials are simply using the data to provide an overall pedestrian count.

That doesn’t mean the technology isn’t capable of such monitoring, however.

The free Wi-Fi system on Church Street, implemented in summer 2015, doubles as a market research tool for businesses along the pedestrian mall.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

According to a Cisco data sheet on its Meraki system (Church Street uses nine networked Cisco Meraki MR72 access points), the “key benefits” of the “CMX Location Analytics” system include “Understand user behavior and foot traffic for specific time periods” and “Use information to make decisions on staffing, storefront design, or employee ... policies.”

Here’s how the data sheet pitches the system:

Understand foot traffic and presence-based user behavior Meraki’s cloud-managed wireless access points (APs) come equipped with the ability to detect user presence based on probe requests beaconing from Wi-Fi devices (e.g., smartphones, laptops, and tablets). By exporting this data to the Meraki cloud for in-depth analysis, Meraki provides real-time analytics on the presence of Wi-Fi devices with intuitive and customizable graphs, facilitating useful insight into trends such as foot traffic by time of day, new vs. repeat visitors, and visitor dwell time. This visibility facilitates a deeper understanding of a Wi-Fi hotspot’s visitors and provides insights such as capture rate for a retail outlet or dwell time for a hotel lobby or enterprise branch office.

All of this monitoring is happening without users connecting to the system, and that’s part of Bradley Holt’s concern.

“Even if you are just walking down the street and you don’t choose to connect to their Wi-Fi network, it is still tracking you,” Holt says. “And I think that’s the distinction is that you’re not making that decision to connect to the Wi-Fi network, and you’re still being tracked.”

"Even if you are just walking down the street and you don't choose to connect to their Wi-Fi network, it is still tracking you." - Bradley Holt

That’s because the technology counts devices through a unique identifier known as a MAC address, which every wireless device regularly broadcasts as it searches for possible networks to connect to.

Redmond confirmed as much in an interview, but noted that the Church Street setup is similar to many commercial public Wi-Fi networks.

“You might shop, you might go to a restaurant that has Wi-Fi,” he said. “There are these systems out there that are doing this. They’re not collecting cell phones [numbers] – they can’t, I mean there isn’t any technology out there that I’m aware of that can do that – it’s not getting an IP address, it’s just getting a unique cell phone [device]. So I guess the bigger question is: What about that?”