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Shopper snooping or innocent monitoring?

Before Christmas, US Senator Charles Schumer publicly criticised the use of technology tracking shoppers around busy shopping centres, saying:

“A shopper’s personal cell phone should not be used by a third party as a tracking device by retailers who are seeking to determine holiday shopping patterns. Personal cell phones are just that — personal. If retailers want to tap into your phone to see what your shopping patterns are, they can ask you for your permission to do so.”

People are right to be worried that their mobile phones can be turned into tracking devices very easily, without their permission or knowledge. Once again, there is a serious risk that technology is moving much faster than the law.

The ‘FootPath’ technology, manufactured by UK company Path Intelligence, is also in use in some UK shopping centres. Customers are notified that the technology is in use by signs around the premises, but are otherwise unaware their movements are being monitored.

There is a risk that companies will not publicise what equipment is being used to avoid negagtive publicity of this kind. FootPath should be applauded for their efforts to publicise what is going on, and they have been open and honest in talking to Big Brother Watch about their work.

We have been assured that no personal information is collected, and that it is impossible to connect their data with the identity of handset owners, even at the request of the police. The company has reassured us that they only supply aggregate data on an hour-by-hour basis, and refuse to disclose individuals movements or provide real-time information.

While these safeguards are to be welcomed, we would be far more comfortable with an opt-in system, as ultimately the details of your movements are personal information. It is fair to argue that such a system would require the retention of personal information to prove consent, so would actually be a more serious intrusion on privacy, but

The FootPath technology being used in the UK is not capable of capturing personal information or sending communications to people’s phones. It is certainly not the kind of equipment used to track individuals over large distances, or capable of intercepting phone calls.

However, as technology improves, those facilities will become more accessible, and consumers need to have faith that the law protects their privacy. Uncertainty over when and how technology is being used only undermines trust and confidence in any system using mobile phones.

Illustrating this, speaking at the A Fine Balance – Location and Cyber Privacy in the Digital Age conference in London in December, Jonathan Bamford, head of strategic liaison at the ICO said: “The ubiquitous nature of the devices you carry around that provide data directly to organisations without users being aware means you’ve lost the clear relationship where it’s the users’ choice over which data they provide.”

The legal regulation is this area urgently needs strengthening and it is not good enough that the only way people can be sure they are not being tracked when they go shopping is to turn their phones off.


Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Mobile Phones, Surveillance, Technology

18 Responses to Shopper snooping or innocent monitoring?

  1. Pix

    If you look at the website of the company that provides Footpath Technology to shopping Centres etc you will find under their privacy policy, the following:-

    Commitment to privacy – as a voluntary ‘fail-safe’ mechanism, we have also agreed, as a company, not to access any information that would allow us, or a third party to link any path information with any other data or information that would allow you to be identified.

    They repeatedly claim that individuals cannot be identified but the above statement suggests otherwise.  It appears that what they are saying, is that in order to protect the privacy of individuals everyone (at the company) with access to the data that could be linked with other data to allow identification of individuals, will be totally ethical and not make these links.  

    Perhaps BBW could provide us with a list of places that have this technology so that we can stay away from them if we so choose.  Or let us choose to switch off/leave at home, our mobile phones.

  2. John M

    Perhaps they should be obliged to send every monitored phone a text message reading “we’re using your phone to track your every move in this shopping centre” and see how many complaints they get.

  3. Uol

    Is anybody actually worried about this?  So a shopping centre is going to track how long we stare at the window of Dunkin Donuts – does it really infringe our privacy?  Surely, the mobile networks can do this anyway.

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  5. Former Insider

    Path Intelligence track the TSMI. It is sort of like a dynamic IP address in principle, except it only ever changes when you leave the country or turn your phone off. So they don’t need to know your phone number they have enough info to know your ethnicity, which shopping malls you go to and when.

    The big question is can a small ambitious company be trusted not to discreetly reveal databases of your data to the like of Land Securities for vast sums of cash? Having worked with PI I can honestly say I wouldn’t trust them. As a citizen I don’t like the fact that we even need to.

    Once Land Securities or Westfield have a database with your geo-location data it doesn’t take much to cross reference credit card, video and other data to figure out exactly who you are.

    This thin end of the wedge should never have got past the privacy commissioner.

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  8. worried as hell

    I presume the technology gathers the actual phone number and date/time the device was at such and such a store. That being so, its not too great a leap to see that with that basic data the Police or local council for instance could link instore CCTV to the phone device and get pictures et cetera. Of course the developers will always say its strictly for one purpose but since it can be used for other purposes you can be sure it will, with our without a Court Order. I don’t belive this is being used in North Korea which must mean the UK gets first prize for the most surveillanced society on the planet. How thrilling !

  9. Pix

    Can mobile phone companies give us the means to block tracking technology such as this?

  10. John Name

    Can’t they just bloody leave us alone for once?

  11. Dijital
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  13. Anon

    Is this legal under the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949 ?


    rubbish it is capturing personal information by either the imei of the phone or the mac code! and thanking the snooping scum for being open is a absolute joke!


    Anyone up for a class action lawsuit?

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