In Toronto, the WiFi may come with a side of electronic snooping

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: So a guy walks into a bar. Wait, you’ve heard this one already? Well, if you live in Toronto, if you’ve heard it, the owner of the bar knows about it too. Let me explain. In Toronto, a hundred and seventy sensors have been installed in bars and restaurants to track customers’ smartphones. The sensors can detect where shoppers go and when. Fan Zheng runs a late night snack bar called Happy Child. I mean you’re basically spying on customers, right?

Fan Zheng: I wouldn't say that. The information that we get is aggregated data, right? So it's not as though as soon as a customer walks in we have access to their Facebook and we're snooping on their profiles and such. It's more like statistical analytics that we get. It's very general.

Werman: But you do have access though to Facebook pages of customers, right, if you wanted to?

Zheng: I personally do not. The company that provides me with this analytical data called Turnstyle, they don’t offer access to people’s specific Facebook profiles. That’s not how it works.

Werman: So give us an example because I know that some of the data gave you an idea to attract new customers.

Zheng: We understood, because of some of the statistical information we were provided, that a lot of our customers were going to the gym. The transponder nodes collect this information from your cellphone. So what I did was I had some workout tank-tops manufactured, give them out to some customer. A lot of these people would see these shirts at the gym, our branding is excellent, is a very lovable character like a Disney logo, and a lot of people would see this character on the t-shirt and they would be curious as to where to get the t-shirt. We’ve had a lot of people come in, they’d come and sit down, have a drink, and that was one of the ways we were able to use that information to generate more traffic and, by way of that, more business.

Werman: Do your customers know you’re tracking them?

Zheng: My customers aren’t being tracked. That’s a very harsh way of . . .

Werman: Really? I mean it seems to me, but they are being tracked. I mean this Turnstyle company is basically trying to get information, the meta-information right?

Zheng: They have the option of turning off their WiFi signal, right? You go anywhere and if you're using someone's WiFi signal, you're being tracked. It's common knowledge, right? It’s not like a [??].

Werman: I think there are probably a lot of people out there who do not realize that when their wireless is signal is on they’re being essentially tracked.

Zheng: I’m not out there to invade anyone’s privacy. And I think because this technology is so new,this topic hasn't really been debated that much in the mainstream media until now - and I'm glad the conversation is being had now - but I don't feel as though I am necessarily being invasive in terms of people's privacy. I'm not going into their Facebooks, I'm not analyzing their habits on a personal level. It's a very generalized overview. It’s not my personal agenda to take people’s personal information, nor do I have access to that, and use it for my own advantage.

Werman: Fan Zheng runs Happy Child, a late night snack bar serving cocktails and cheeseburgers in Toronto.