Your local shopping centre could be tracking your movements via your mobile phone. Is this a step closer to Big Brother Britain, or the perfect way to help shops create the ultimate personal shopping experience?
Next time you visit your local shopping centre it could be following your every footstep. The system, called Footpath, uses monitoring devices installed in shopping centres to pick up signals from your mobile.
It can pinpoint your location to within two metres and will track information such as how long you shop for and where you go. All of this data is then sent back to the shopping centre for analysis.
High street simply mirroring online
The technology could arguably help the high street catch up to their online rivals. Web retailers are already using cookies to track your movements around the web, meaning they can serve up targeted ads based on the online shops you’ve visited and the products you’ve viewed.
However, thanks to EU-wide legislation, websites are required to be more transparent about the use of tracking technologies and must seek consent before they place a non-functional cookie, or a similar technology that’s used to track your browsing behaviour, on your computer.
Hard to know if you’re being tracked
By comparison Path Intelligence, the company behind Footpath, has held back from divulging how many shopping centres are using its technology. Dr Rob Reid, Which? scientific policy advisor, calls for greater transparency:
‘Path Intelligence has been reluctant to reveal where it’s being used, and some shopping centres are only putting up small signs to alert consumers. We are concerned that this does not provide consumers with enough information.’
The information Footpath collects will be anonymous. So, it’ll know where a mobile phone’s been but won’t be able to identify you as an individual. However, privacy campaigners say this doesn’t excuse the tracking.
Nick Pickles, from campaign group Big Brother Watch, told the Guardian: ‘It is assumed that the shopping centre has the automatic right to track people’s mobile phones – to me that’s wrong.’
I have to say that I agree with Nick. My path around a shopping mall may reveal little more than a passion for clothes retailer Fat Face, far too many coffee stops and even more trips to the loo with my six year old. Even so, I don’t want the centre ‘following’ me around the store without my consent.
And what’s to stop the shopping centre selling this information on to a third party, or Path Intelligence teaming up with mobile providers who can personally identify the people behind their phones?
Why isn’t opting out possible?
Whereas opting out of online behavioural advertising is relatively simple (even if not quite easy enough) it seems the only way to opt out of Footpath is to switch off your phone – that’s hardly good for a mobile communications device.
A shopping centre is one of the places I probably use my mobile the most. While my daughter and I are happy to wander around the clothes and toy shops, my husband likes to wander off on his own – preferring to browse outdoor clothing and book stores.
It’s easy to see the benefits in this technology for retailers, but as far as consumers are concerned there are problems – summed up perfectly by Dr Rob Reid:
‘Our key concerns with the use of Pathfinder in shopping centres are around the lack of transparency, choice and control that consumers are being offered.’
Would you avoid shopping centres if they used this type of tracking technology?