The NSA For Coffee

Philz Coffee is Scanning and Tracking Customer's Cell Phones

Philz has long been a neighborhood favorite thanks to its welcoming atmosphere and no bullshit staff.  But despite its neighborhoody feel, the burgeoning coffee chain founded on 24th and Folsom has been seeing itself as a start-up in recent years, raising buckets of venture capital (valuing the company between $40 and $70 million) and partnering with Facebook to test a “check-in for wifi” scheme.  Now, according to the SF Appeal, Philz has graduated to spying on customers and passersby:

Beginning in 2012 the coffee company partnered with retail analytic firm Euclid, installing devices in their stores that detect the “pings” Wi-Fi enabled devices send out while searching for networks to connect to. The “pings” include what’s called a device’s Media Access Control (MAC) address (which is kind of like a unique device serial number) that’s used by Euclid in aggregate to provide business intelligence, in order to, they say, to improve operations.

It’s not just a business’s customers that are tracked, however: Euclid’s technology also scans devices of those passing by.

Philz’ CEO told the Appeal that the tracking tech is “a useful way for us to help deliver a better customer experience” and they’re “particularly interested in is dwell time [so] we can restructure the furniture in various locations to accommodate commuters or customers who camp out.”  However, a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that there are “legal concerns” with location eavesdropping on US citizens.

UPDATE: Philz backed down and will disabled the tracking system, according to ABC 7.

[SF Appeal | Photo: Ed Schipul]

Comments (23)

Nothing to see here. 

Ten seconds of Googling (aka research, aka journalism) would have taken the author to the privacy page of Euclid which states clearly that the data is anonymized before it’s shared with Philz… Let’s throw flaming garbage cans through their windows in the meantime though!

I kept this piece from getting super techincal, but if we’re going down the “aka research” route, let’s read the Appeal piece:

However, despite Euclid’s insistence that the collected MAC addresses from devices are anonymized, Schoen said that the obfuscation technology used to do so doesn’t actually work. Schoen also posits that because of most analytics companies’ close ties to the advertising industry, there’s no financial incentive to improve the anonymization of the data.


Schoen also pointed out that because Philz partners with Facebook and Cisco to set up the infrastructure in their stores, Facebook would theoretically be in a position to observe the MAC address alongside a Facebook user name — thereby establishing a correlation with a device owner’s actual identity, at least in theory.

I’m not trying to make the discussion super technical. I’m merely pointing out that collecting data from anonymized cell phones in the store (and nearby vicinity) is roughly akin to a business owner standing with a clipboard on the corner and counting how many people walk by his shop during the day. (Beware. Clipboard guy may actually look at your face!)

The conspiracy theories in the SF Appeal article suggesting that a local coffeeshop owner is somehow going to bust through ‘weak obfuscation technology’ to reveal the true identity of the guy who sat on the shitter for too long is perhaps a tad far fetched. You give up more of your privacy by telling them your name when you put in your coffee order or paying with a credit card…

The article also attempts to paint the coffee shop owner as some kind of tech giant with deep partnerships in the Valley. Their “partnership” with Facebook consists of several strategic go-to-market synergisms, such as: delivering bags of coffee beans to the Facebook campus, hiring minimum wage workers to pour coffee for Facebook billionaires, cleaning up, etc. 

+1 for destroying this post.

+1 for applauding bullshit and obfuscation.

Thank you.

I’m not going to bother summarizing all the evils of digital and real world tracking (plenty of people have already done a damn good job of covering that), but I complete disagree with your analogy that cell phone tracking is akin to “a business owner standing with a clipboard.”  The business owner cannot aggregate data tied to individuals across multiple years, and multiple locations.  Moreover, that business owner’s clipboard data isn’t aggregated by a third-party vendor, who works with an unknown quantity of other brick and mortar businesses, which can further aggregate that data to amass an extensive shopping/location pattern database on “anonymized” individuals (keep in mind that while they may anonymize your MAC address, it’s not a random hash generated for every visit–you have a persistent “anonymized” user across the entire platform).

Of course, I’m never going to win over a Google employee on the perils of tracking, giving the chilling effectiveness of that company’s data operation.

I know every Safeway store does this too.

Welcome to the new reality, KevMo! Can’t say I’m a fan but its inevitable.

For someone who’s not a fan, you sure don’t mind bending over for it.

I love bending over.

Also, re: post tag, they take cards.

Didn’t know that. Fixed.

Thanks for pointing this out.

I’m not sure it establishes Philz as a bad guy / company on privacy,  but its good that questions are asked.

 this data aggregation techniques do imply big societal changes, and I wonder who is looking out for the average person’s interest?

 I like the coffee at Pingz, I mean, Philz.

Fuck these goddamn techie assholes.

I’ve always disdained them because their coffee is pretentious and sub-par, but I never knew they were actually EVIL, too.  Learn something new every day, I guess.

Damn you’re hella dumb.

I agree, am not a fan of their coffee – it does get you really wired — my guess is the higher caffeine content care of (cheap) robusta beans.

Thanks for the reminder that this behavior is everywhere, all the time. I probably could have saved the few days it took me to read Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation and just read this instead…

This article offends me for a few reasons:First off, I like Philz coffee a lot! Granted I’m biased because Phil Jaber’s family is from my very own East Jerusalem neighborhood/refugee camp, not to mention Philz coffee is probably the most successful Palestinian company here in the bay area, so I’m a bit proud.On a less personal and more professional note, as an engineer, I must say also that this tech is nothing new and this access data can be mined from any wifi network and is at schools, airports, and soon parks thanks to google’s “gift” to SF. Moreover, if you’re on any social media like this or facebook or even have a gmail acct, I don’t think privacy is really the issue, is it? I do think there’s an issue with tracking human beings, any Palestinian could tell you that. However, Philz coffee is far too downstream a target to change the system in which it operates.Furthermore, Starbucks and other cafes do this too, but they actually require you to sign up and give some personal information, right? Philz you just walk in, click a consent box, and use it for free…and that consent box is a liability waiver because it’s now a franchise, which is a goal forced on it by the competitive nature of the market, which is a necessary means to an end to be able to afford to stay in business with the rising cost of everything as gentrification forces up everything from rent and utilities down to the smallest coffee bean, none of which is really up to a small business owner at all. That’s America’s problem though right, that there is no incentive to open a small business any longer or to go to college? That our government can only afford to invest in those capable of giving out loans like banks and big pharma, and not in those that actually need those loans…or something…I’ve never started a company myself, so I really can’t speak to this much. I did work at Peet’s and Starbucks for a few more years than I’d have liked in high school and college…I haven’t read any articles like this about them…

Paragraphs are

your friend!

I’ve always found Philz staff to be among the highest-bullshit in the city. The aggressive up-in-your-grill cheerfulness rivals that of the restaurant server in Office Space. I do like that coffee though.