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Cell-phone tracking mall operator has second thoughts

A Cleveland mall owner that started to track shoppers' cell phones in California and Virginia decides that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea.

It seems that the Cleveland mall operator who last week declared it was tracking mall shoppers in California and Virginia via their cell phones has had a change of, perhaps, heart.

CNN reports that Forest City Commercial Management might have been encouraged to change its mind, heart, and attitude by a phone call from the office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

How the Temecula mall explained the technology on its site. Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The phone call might have directly relayed the substance of a press conference the senator gave on Sunday.

In it, he suggested that perhaps a more polite way to go about these things was to ask shoppers if they'd like to be part of such tracking, rather than posting small signs that told them the fun had already started.

Shoppers in Temecula, Calif., and Richmond, Va., had already been tracked on Black Friday. ("Oh, look! Mrs. Teagle has jumped on top of Johnny Hegel, trying to be first to the video games!")

However, today Forest City issued a statement that said: "We have temporarily suspended further trial of the technology while we work with the system developer on possible enhancements, and in deference to concerns raised by Senator Schumer."

The only way shoppers on Black Friday could have resisted tracking would have been to turn off their phones. But this would have been entirely inconvenient when so many would have wished to text all their friends to boast about the bargains they'd secured.

For its part, Forest City and the manufacturers, U.K.-based Path Intelligence insist that no personal information--for example, names and phone numbers--is obtained by the sleight of signal.

Indeed, Path Intelligence's fine Web site offers that the company is using this so-called FootPath technology merely to bring "online analytics to the offline world."

The only problem is that not everyone is yet comfortable with online creepiness. If we have to confront it in the physical world too, it just feels, well, double creepy.

Some would see no problem with tracking cell phones. After all, Google maps uses our cell phone location to help us get out of the three-foot lake we have accidentally wandered into after a night celebrating our third round of funding.

However, such tracking of our cell phones actually helps us. The difference with Forest City and Path Intelligence's approach is that they seem merely to be helping themselves.