Your smartphone makes you a valuable source of business information


We know that personal privacy is largely a myth these days, thanks to being tethered to the Internet and electronic devices like smartphones.  New cases of our data being used, abused and misused pop up in media reports almost daily.

Some people wonder how their information could be of value to anybody.  After all, they’re just small-time consumers who don’t have a lot of money and aren’t really of interest to those looking to profit from them – so why all the attention?  Well, a recent report from Wolf Street illustrates one way in which even the most impoverished consumer’s data can, in aggregate form, mean money to businesses.

Owning retail has been challenging since the Great Recession. You likely know the reasons why: overbuilding, the internet, rapacious private equity, too many lackluster tenants. You also know that every move you make—every breath you take—is recorded by your mobile phone. This latter circumstance has allowed a clever company, Placer AI, to develop the most useful tool for commercial real estate since Hewlett Packard introduced the HP-12C in 1981.

While Placer’s software is no doubt breathtakingly complex, its tool is—in essence—as simple as a bouncer counting a nightclub’s patrons with a clicker. Placer allows one to set up a “geofence” around a shopping center, a retail building or even a tiny tenant’s space and then calculate that finite area’s walk-in traffic by counting the phones crossing its threshold. By using those phone visits and an algorithm or two, Placer delivers an accurate traffic count of the geofenced area.  A Swiss Army knife looks like a spoon compared with the multiple uses this traffic count offers.

On offense, a landlord can use Placer to prove her center has more foot traffic than, say, three competing centers and thus entice potential tenants to lease her vacant space.  She can use this data to figure out the “path to purchase”, that is, where her center’s customers are coming from and, incidentally, where they live. (If your phone stays put long during the day, the algorithm says you work there; at night, that you live there.) With this information, she can approach a tenant already in the trade area, show it’s getting no traffic from a key zip code and argue that it should add a new store at her center to fill that void.

On defense, it works like this: The tenant says, “I have no customers, I can’t pay rent.” The savvy landlord replies, “Actually, Placer says your foot traffic is fine. Pay up.”  Or when it comes time to renew a lease, that multi-billion dollar purveyor of coffee says, “You need to drop our rent by 20 percent or we’re walking.” You hand over the Placer data that ranks your store’s traffic in the top quartile of coffee’s northern California stores. Coffee sighs, stops the saber rattling and quietly exercises its option.

. . .

We … have a major tenant with a lease option coming up at fair market rent. As part of the negotiations, we asked this tenant for its profit and loss statement for our store and got crickets. Then we asked our go-to broker to placer the store’s traffic for us. That report put our store’s traffic in the top 10 percent of this tenant’s nationwide portfolio. A useful bit of information.

A final note: foot traffic is great, but it’s only one of the two variables you need to calculate the tenant’s gross sales and thus its profitability (your ultimate goal). The other? That particular tenant’s average ticket or basket size.  That might take some sleuthing, with the internet being a good place to start. The net will tell you, for example, that the average basket for a supermarket is $55. If Placer says your store has 750,000 customer visits a year, you can guess that it’s doing around $41,000,000 in annual sales. Good luck.

There’s more at the link.

Geofencing like that is just one way in which your personal information can be aggregated with that from other consumers to become an important factor in profit or loss for a business.  That’s why efforts to improve personal privacy are being fought tooth and nail by Big Tech – because they make money out of us in so many ways we can’t even begin to imagine it.  Cut off their flow of information, and you cut off their flow of money as well.

The trouble is, the “nanny state” is deriving just as much benefit from our information as the corporate world.  Just look at the use of customer’s private financial activity to identify those of potential interest to law enforcement in Washington, D.C. last month – without so much as a single search warrant or a “by your leave” to those involved.

I can only suggest that those of us who care about our privacy should try to leave our “electronic leash” at home whenever possible.  I do so regularly.  I see no reason why I should make it easy for those wanting to track me, to do so.  My daily activities are none of their business.  For the same reason, I conduct much of my business in cash, and use credit cards as little as possible.



  1. Peter,

    I was wondering about placing the schmartfon in an ammo can. Actually all riders in my vehicle, and only taking them out at locations that are, useful.


  2. Probably won't help much, high frequency RF leaks pretty good. Besides, modern cars are also a source of tracking info on their own. And you see all of those cameras around, on just about every light pole in the city? Welcome to the future, my friend.

  3. Turn off your cell phone if you cdon't want anyone using your data.

    And find out what fuse controls the GPS in your car (for mine, it is fuse #4 in the interior fusebox) and pull that when you don't care to be tracked

  4. Turning a cellphone off is insufficient. The GPS (even if "disabled") will continue to log location data, and can upload it as soon as it's turned on again.
    So…..turn it off, remove the battery, zip it into a mylar electronics bag, wrap that in tinfoil, and you MAY neuter its GPS.
    Without an easy way to test Faraday cages, I've opted to rely on layering to attenuate signals. My stored electronics are first wrapped in plastic, then tinfoil, then into an ammo can which has the rim sanded to bare metal, with a tinfoil lid lined on that, then clamped shut. If I'm really paranoid, that ammo can then goes into a barrel with a tight lid, or a galvanized garbage can with a tight lid. Dielectric layers (usually cardboard) between all metal shielding layers. And yes, I know tinfoil is really aluminum now, but I'm an old coot from wayback.

  5. There is a decent youtube video that shows putting a cell phone inside two cages gives a drop of about 55 db. Two sealed aluminum foil pouches should do the trick if leaving it behind is not an option. Turn it off though to notkill the battery. At 55 db loss, they probably cant restart it remotely.

  6. @dogsledder: It's often a condition of a business lease that the landlord has access to that information. He'll use it to determine rent increases or decreases, etc.

  7. I tested a flip phone in a mylar electronics bag and it would not receive calls or texts.

    Of course that says nothing about smart phones and gps.

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