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.