New System Lets Malls Track Your Habits via Mobile Signals

A new technology has emerged that allows shopping centers to track your location. This is achieved by receivers monitoring the keep-alive signal your phone sends to mobile phone masts; these receivers can apparently pinpoint you to within two meters.

The system is currently being used to record shopping habits, popular routes around shopping centres, and so on. Despite the data being collected anonymously, would you feel like this is an invasion of your privacy?

The system is called FootPath, and was created by Path Intelligence. It is apparently used in seven countries at present, although Path Intelligence declined to reveal which shopping centres around the UK have it installed.

While this technology is impressive it does raise certain privacy issues. For example, let’s assume that this technology can trace people’s habits on a birds-eye map of the shopping centre; all the staff have to do is look up the CCTV footage of that area at a certain time and they can attach shopping habits to a face.

Of course I also see the benefit to retailers. Understanding the popularity of different shops, standing areas, meeting points, eating locations and so forth – and the order in which they are visited – is of tremendous value when it comes to targeted advertising. For a simplified example, if the data revealed by this system tells retailers that people who spend lots of time in sports shops tend to eat at Burger King, while people who hang around in clothing shops eat at KFC, then JJB could direct all their advertising funds to the Burger King area, while Topman could post all their adverts around KFC.

If everything is kept anonymous then that’s all well and good, I suppose, that they can’t identify an individual. Still, you aren’t given any opportunity to opt-out. The only thing to do would be to put your phone into Airplane mode, which is the last thing you want to do with a smartphone.

Gus Hosein, the executive director of Privacy International, gave his opinion: “Simply notifying people that their every move is being tracked does not absolve Path Intelligence or the shopping centres that install their technology. Until a proper opt-out is introduced, this technology will be a serious threat to personal privacy.”

The Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter uses this new technology, and their way of informing customers of the system is by little notes up on walls reading “To improve our 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.”

I think that once a proper opt-out system exists I won’t have any problem with it. I have no real objection to tracking habits with technology, because everyone uses it where possible and it is unavoidable. What I object to is not being able to remove myself from such a system.

A good use for this technology is surely in the workplace. It could be used to keep track of how much time staff spend at their desks compared to the coffee machine or copier room. Better still it could be used to ensure that staff regularly leave their desks for breaks, and do not force themselves to continue working beyond the times health experts recommend.

As always, please submit your own thoughts and opinions below.