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by Sophie Curtis

Privacy Campaigners Slam Shopper Tracking Tech

Jan 09, 20123 mins
Cellular NetworksComputers and PeripheralsData and Information Security

Shopping centre tracking system 'Footpath' condemned by civil rights campaigners

Monitoring technology used in shopping centres to track customers’ movements via their mobile phones has come under fire from civil rights campaigners, who claim that it invades people’s privacy.

FootPath technology, manufactured by UK company Path Intelligence, uses signals from a shopper’s mobile phone to pinpoint their position to within two meters. The data collected is then fed back to a processing centre, where it is analysed in order to track the movement of consumers and establish shopping patterns.

Path Intelligence says the technology enables organisations to optimise the layout of their space and improve their productivity, by understanding how people are moving around within it. However, Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, describes the technology as “a serious threat to personal privacy,” and Nick Pickles of campaign group Big Brother Watch warns there is a risk that technology is moving faster than the law.

According to Pickles, customers are notified that the technology is in use by signs around the premises, but are otherwise unaware their movements are being monitored. The data collected is anonymous, and Path Intelligence claims it is impossible to connect the data with the handset owner. However, the only way people can be sure they are not being tracked is to turn their phones off.

“We would be far more comfortable with an opt-in system, as ultimately the details of your movements are personal information,” said Pickles in a blog post. “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.”

One shopping centre currently using FootPath technology is Princesshay in Exeter. Signs are displayed around the building, which read: “To improve out customer service we monitor the use of mobile phones to help show us how this centre is used by its customers. No personal data is stored at any time.”

Despite the signs, however, the Princesshay’s use of the technology has provoked an angry reaction from shoppers.

“I walk to school through Princesshay every day and often shop there. This is a huge invasion of privacy as I now feel like my every movement is being watched,” wrote Meg Carter on the ‘Good Morning Devon’ Facebook page. “It has made me not actually feel comfortable to buy things or go into a shop and i now will be ordering from the internet, using the highstreet or other shopping centres.”

While many people, like Pickles, believe that location-tracking technologies are progressing too quickly, others have raised concerns that sat-nav systems, which use GPS to monitor the position of vehicles on the road, are rapidly becoming out of date.

Amid a series of high-profile sat-nav blunders, including a Syrian lorry driver headed for Gibraltar ending up in Skegness, the UK government has seen fit to schedule a “satnav summit,” with the aim of ensuring that highway authorities, mapping companies and sat-nav manufacturers work more closely together.

“Out-of-date directions mean misdirected traffic – a scourge of local communities,” said Local Transport Minister Norman Baker.

Baker will host the talks in March – around a month before councils gain new powers to decide how their roads appear on maps, aimed at directing traffic better.