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Amazon Granted a Patent That Prevents In-Store Shoppers From Online Price Checking (theverge.com) 465

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Amazon's long been a go-to for people to online price compare while shopping at brick-and-mortars. Now, a new patent granted to the company could prevent people from doing just that inside Amazon's own stores. The patent, titled "Physical Store Online Shopping Control," details a mechanism where a retailer can intercept network requests like URLs and search terms that happen on its in-store Wi-Fi, then act upon them in various ways. The document details in great length how a retailer like Amazon would use this information to its benefit. If, for example, the retailer sees you're trying to access a competitor's website to price check an item, it could compare the requested content to what's offered in-store and then send price comparison information or a coupon to your browser instead. Or it could suggest a complementary item, or even block content outright. Amazon's patent also lets the retailer know your physical whereabouts, saying, "the location may be triangulated utilizing information received from a multitude of wireless access points." The retailer can then use this information to try and upsell you on items in your immediate area or direct a sales representative to your location.
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Amazon Granted a Patent That Prevents In-Store Shoppers From Online Price Checking

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  • Not only will they track you and spy on you. but now they'll also censor your browsing.

    At least they're not just silently modifying the traffic to mislead you...yet...

    Now what's that theory about all participants in capitalism requiring perfect information about the market?

    • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:09AM (#54632213) Homepage
      Consumers are on the receiving end of capitalism. They're not capitalists. What more perfect information can you get than a capative audience on your in-store wifi network?
      • by alvinrod ( 889928 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:46AM (#54632495)
        It has nothing to do with being on the receiving end, as the theory (which doesn't even require capitalism as it comes from game theory and any planned economy that wants to even have a chance of working is going to strive for perfect information) applies to anyone participating in the game, which consumers are definitely doing.

        In the real world, perfect information is practically impossible, and even when it is potentially available, it is frequently too expensive to justify the cost of acquiring it. Capitalism as typically practiced is a decentralized economic approach, which tends to work well in practice because no one is a mind reader, so the individual players tend to make economic moves that are more locally informed on average than planned economies could ever hope to achieve.
      • by spikesahead ( 111032 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @10:08AM (#54632653)

        Why would I EVER connect to in-store wifi? Even if they manage to change the law enough to let them turn the store into a faraday cage, I can still GO OUTSIDE and find out anything I want.

        • by tepples ( 727027 )

          Why would I EVER connect to in-store wifi?

          Because your phone's 4G meter app shows "0 MB left".

    • Reminds me of what Henny Youngman always used to say: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this"...
      • And me that used my (not-for-profit) ISP free VPN only for paying on foreign wifis.
        I may well switch it on by default, after all...
        H.
        (P. S. yes, there are not-for-profit ISPs. In France, FDN for instance, boldly independent since practically the creation of internet accesses...)

    • by DrXym ( 126579 )
      Use Opera Mini, Orfox or something like that. Failing that, don't use the store wifi and ensure not to install/use Amazon's apps, or if you do, deny them location info.
    • But, I am a cheap bastard!

      My "cheap-bastard" plan costs $1 / day for 100MB + calls + text. I probably spend $5 / month on my service. When I am out at Home Depot, or a grocery store, I certainly use their WIFI and with my $4/ month VPN, I see no reason whatsoever not to.

      • My "cheap-bastard" plan costs $1 / day for 100MB + calls + text.

        My "luxury-bastard" plan costs $11/month for 10GB, no calls, no text.

    • by Z00L00K ( 682162 )

      How do you know that?

      That's what the air ticket sellers have done for a long time now. It has been proven that if you shop around for best price then they use cookies to track that you do that and you almost never get any better price than you got at the first site.

  • by mark_reh ( 2015546 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:03AM (#54632169) Journal

    Are they patenting it so they can license it, or so they can prevent others from doing it by not licensing it?

    • by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:11AM (#54632223) Journal
      The real question is how this is even worthy of a patent.
    • by e3m4n ( 947977 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:11AM (#54632225)

      or license it to brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy, etc. If the licensing is enough to cover the margins Amazon gets for hosting a product, not only do they still make the profit margins they were expecting, but they dont have to expend labor and shipping in the process. It would be a legal, and unique, twist on the old mob shakedown 'fire insurance' scenario. Buy my amazon-blocking app and you'll never worry about lost sales from us.

    • by EvilSS ( 557649 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:50AM (#54632537)

      Are they patenting it so they can license it, or so they can prevent others from doing it by not licensing it?

      I suspect they did this to lock it up so brick and mortar stores can't use it to prevent people from using it to check Amazon prices.

    • by dmomo ( 256005 )

      That makes sense. By preventing others from doing it, Best Buy will not be able to prevent consumers from searching Amazon.com.

      • By using SSL on all of their pages, which renders any such tactics ineffective, they've already stopped Best Buy from being able to prevent consumers from searching Amazon.com.
    • Are they patenting it so they can license it, or so they can prevent others from doing it by not licensing it?

      That was my first thought - a defensive patent might make sense for Amazon here.

      Still, I'd like to know how they propose to bypass SSL. Google uses it everywhere, as does Amazon, B&H, and many others.

      All the retailer is going to see is a GET request for something from one of those sites, something which they could already quite easily block. What they can't do is see what page your're looking at

      • And since I was unclear, they won't get a full GET request, only the domain name you're requesting. That's all that's needed by the browser to establish encryption and everything else is exchanged thereafter.

        This idea looks like something from a decade or more ago.

  • by known_coward_69 ( 4151743 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:06AM (#54632191)

    because that seems like how everyone is going with their sites and apps

  • by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:06AM (#54632193)
    All that they will be able to tell with a TLS connection is what sites you are accessing, not URLs or contents. Most retailers use TLS (https) by default.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Not to mention those of us using VPN clients on our phones as well.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:07AM (#54632197)

    It's called "wire tapping"

    • by Dragonslicer ( 991472 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:28AM (#54632339)

      It's called "wire tapping"

      This is a good point to raise. A patent gives you the "exclusive right to your invention", but the important word is "exclusive". In case people aren't aware, a patent does not give you the right to implement your patent, it only gives you the right to prevent others from implementing it (via monetary restitution or an injunction by a court). You can patent something that's illegal (e.g. a new method for manufacturing heroin), and you can sue anyone that infringes your patent, but you can still be arrested or sued for implementing it yourself.

      Note that I'm not arguing whether or not Amazon's system counts as wire tapping, I'm only saying that it's not the USPTO's job to decide if it counts as wire tapping.

      • by gtall ( 79522 )

        ...I wonder if this patent could be considered a restraint of trade, maybe the FTC should have go at it....oh, forgot, the administration doesn't believe in regulations.

        • Why would it be restraint of trade? Does the patent prevent other stores from being able to do business? If so, the patent is probably invalid, either for being too broad or too obvious.

          Or did you mean the system that is described by the patent?
        • That's good question but there isn't a very good answer. I think you can probably do as you please on private property (within a broad range of other legal constraints based on local/state/federal law and in particular, your business license), but restrain of trade seems rather a stretch. Even then you can probably refuse service to anyone as long as you can dodge the maze of "discrimination" laws.

    • I think you will find that is IS NOT wiretapping. Wiretapping has a specific legal meaning, and this is certainly not it.

      The store is providing a proprietary service, specifically, a dedicated, store-purchased and controlled wi-fi service. They own it, they provide it to you for nominally "free". It's not a common carrier, it's not "net neutrality", it's their network connection that they are allowing you to use.

      The cost, of course, is that you aren't able to get anything you want as i

  • by religionofpeas ( 4511805 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:07AM (#54632201)

    Cool plan, but I never use store WiFi. It's too much of a hassle to sign in, and it's often slow, and when you walk away, it interrupts any open connections. Instead, I just keep 4G mobile data on all the time.

    • by tepples ( 727027 )

      Instead, I just keep 4G mobile data on all the time.

      How much does a subscription to 4G mobile data cost in your area, and how much do you save every month through price comparison?

  • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:08AM (#54632205)

    The patent, titled "Physical Store Online Shopping Control," details a mechanism where a retailer can intercept network requests like URLs and search terms that happen on its in-store Wi-Fi, then act upon them in various ways.

    WTF would anyone use in-store Wi-Fi in a retail store? I have trouble even imagining a meaningful benefit to this. I don't even use "free" Wi-Fi at places like the airport outside of an emergency. Cellular network connections are generally faster, more secure, more private, and less hassle.

    • WTF would anyone use in-store Wi-Fi in a retail store?

      I often can't get a cellular connection inside of a store, especially if it's in a metal building.

      • by sjbe ( 173966 )

        I often can't get a cellular connection inside of a store, especially if it's in a metal building.

        "Often"? I've been in a LOT of stores and while there certainly are some dead zones, it's fairly uncommon. Certainly not enough of them to justify using in store Wi-FI.

        • I often can't get a cellular connection inside of a store, especially if it's in a metal building.

          "Often"? I've been in a LOT of stores and while there certainly are some dead zones, it's fairly uncommon. Certainly not enough of them to justify using in store Wi-FI.

          Yes, often. I can get a signal if I have line-of-sight to the sky through the front windows. Once I'm far enough into the back that I can't see the windows it drops out. Maybe the stores are smaller where you are.

        • Well, to be devil's advocate, if I were implementing this inside of my store, you can be pretty sure that I'd make sure that no 4G signals reached inside so my WiFi would be your only choice. Not that I'm advocating for this, but there's no point of deploying a solution when there's a trivial workaround.
    • by creimer ( 824291 )
      Not everyone has an unlimited data plan for their cellphones. Sometimes wifi is just more convenient. I'm using wifi on the express bus since it's faster and doesn't drop out while going through the Palo Alto hills on 280.
      • Not everyone has an unlimited data plan for their cellphones.

        You don't need an unlimited data plan. We're talking about doing a quick price comparison. That doesn't require gigabytes of data.

        Sometimes wifi is just more convenient.

        In a retail store? When?

        m using wifi on the express bus since it's faster and doesn't drop out while going through the Palo Alto hills on 280.

        What does that have to do with a price check on in-store wifi in a retail store?

        • by creimer ( 824291 )

          In a retail store? When?

          When you're five days away from having your maxed out 2GB data cap reset to zero and you don't want to pay an extra $15 for a gig of data.

        • by tepples ( 727027 )

          That doesn't require gigabytes of data.

          It does require greater than zero data, which is what subscribers to a "talk and text" plan get.

    • WTF would anyone use in-store Wi-Fi in a retail store? I have trouble even imagining a meaningful benefit to this. I don't even use "free" Wi-Fi at places like the airport outside of an emergency. Cellular network connections are generally faster, more secure, more private, and less hassle.

      Maybe for people with bad data plans it's more of an issue, but in general, I agree. A grocery store that I shop at offers free wi-fi, but I turn off my wi-fi when I go into the store. It is actually slower for me to pull up info on their coupon app on the wi-fi than over the cell connection.

  • This is disturbing on so many levels.

    How long until it's expanded to the neighbour's non-competing store? (It's their wi-fi, they can do what they want with it)
    How long until it's expanded to the whole shopping mall? (It's their complimentary wi-fi, they can do what they want)
    How long until it's expanded to your local ISP monopoly? (It's a customer-service that enhances stockholder value, if you don't like it you can always get another ISP)

    This kind of abuse should be prohibited by net neutrality regulation

    • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

      All regulation would do is make them turn off the WiFi entirely, so you have to do all price-checking on their oh so helpful store terminals, which they know everything about. At least with WiFi, you can use HTTPS to keep them from seeing what you're checking, even if they know where you're checking.

      • Why would you assume that? Stores aren't *currently* blocking competition, yet stores are *currently* offering complimentary wi-fi. Why would they stop that if anti-competitive practices were regulated? What are you basing your assumptions on?

        Also, I very much doubt any of this would cause the slightest consternation for the average /. user, but it would be effective on the vast majority of the tech-illiterate population.

  • by Pedestrianwolf ( 1591767 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:18AM (#54632273)
    I am the only one that doesn't connect to an access point that I'm not familiar with?
  • by dcavanaugh ( 248349 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @09:34AM (#54632383) Homepage

    It seems that most of the online price checking takes place at OTHER stores, with customers checking the price of something on AMAZON. If Amazon thought to patent this method, maybe it's because they don't want competitors to block these online price checks.

  • Anything that pushes everyone to using SSL for everything is a good thing in my book.

    This will push online retailers to use SSL for everything, as SSL will render the snooping and content altering aspects of this patent ineffective. Ergo, this is a good thing.
  • We'll find a way.

  • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @10:20AM (#54632771) Homepage
    If you're interested in the sausage making of online advertising with user data, check out "Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley" [amzn.to] by Antonio Garcia Martinez, an engineer who sold his engineers and company to Twitter while going to work at Facebook. Be forewarned that the author takes you through the sleazy side of Silicon Valley. Not for the faint of heart.
  • They could send you coupons, but they can't stop you from seeing anything you want to see.

    Hotels tried to do something similar to force people to use their in-hotel wifi but they got slammed by the FCC.

    • by Mascot ( 120795 )

      Those are entirely different things (unless TFA contradicts the summary). What hotels tried to do was to block hotspots in order to force you to connect e.g. your laptop to the hotel's wifi (presumably at a premium) rather than your own hotspot. From what I remember, they pretty much willfully caused interference to accomplish this, thus why the FCC were not fans.

      This patent, on the other hand, is about intercepting and reacting to content while on the store's wifi.

  • Best Buy used to do this YEARS ago. Different prices if you flip from WiFi to cellular. VPN is your friend. And no, amazon.com, you may NOT use my location in the browser.
  • So, Amazon has patented a hacking method, a way to do something that should be illegal if it isn't already. Maybe they should patent a bank robbing method now.
  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Friday June 16, 2017 @12:14PM (#54633643)

    Turns out what we really should have been fearing all along was, "Marketing In the Middle".

Business is a good game -- lots of competition and minimum of rules. You keep score with money. -- Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari

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