/ Shopping, Technology

How shopping centres could be tracking your every move

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?

Paranoimia says:
6 January 2012

It really makes no difference to me. Anyone in the shopping centre can see where I go and for how long; this system is basically just another person knowing where I am. It’s not like I’m doing anything secretive or illegal, so I really don’t care.

As for “privacy campaigners say this doesn’t excuse the tracking” – how is it an invasion of privacy? You’re in a PUBLIC place, with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other people able to see where you’re going – what’s more, those people CAN see exactly who you are, and exactly what you’re taking off the shelves. What difference does an anonymous phone signal make?

If people are that concerned about privacy, they should be insisting that shopping centres only allow one person in at a time, so that no-one can see where you go or what you buy.

Mariner says:
8 January 2012

A shopping centre is NOT a public place, it is all company owned land and buildings. Your rights of access and liabilitys are completely different to the regular town centre “High St”.

We are already followed by cameras and loyalty cards track our purchases.

I am more concerned that customers will have to foot the bill for the cost of using this tracking system.

Simple… just switch off your mobile phone on entering
shopping mall if you don’t want to be tracked.

Such info or data gathered of you can be traded for
valuable consideration in money or money’s
worth AND is, of course, a serious invasion of your
privacy….. no such thing as you giving your implied
consent as to anything you don’t want others to
know/about…. least of all anyone who can PROFIT
from it either directly or otherwise.

ConsumerPete says:
6 January 2012

What gives shopping mall managements, or anyone else, the right to eavesdrop on phone signals? I would have thought this was unlicensed reception of radio signals and therefore illegal. If they can monitor our actual phone conversations as well a major scandal seems likely.

Don’t think it’s likely the actual monitoring of phone conversations per se
or as to contents thereof, but pretty much EVERYTHING ELSE to the
minutest detail, to the extent that your phone is NOT switched off….
well, that’s a pretty wide range of (intimate) details, preferences and
shopping habits that’s not the business of anyone to know without your
express consent.

It might be a good idea to switch off phones in public places. Apart from avoiding being tracked it would show consideration for others. It is not nice having to listen to phone conversations at checkouts, on buses and on trains. I have even been held up at checkouts while customers take calls.

Has consideration for others been abandoned (perhaps I missed an announcement) or just phased out?

yup…. and particularly in confined spaces in restaurants, shops and trains
where there is no option of getting away from all the (idle) chat or blithering away
quite often much too loud to considerable annoyance….. but in their own private
domain away from others, who cares?

Consideration for others is, of course, never in their contemplation in such
selfish acts.

Reminds me of a neighbour from hell I once had, retorting:
” I can play my music as loud as I want and for
as long as as I want”.

….borrow someone elses phone when you go shopping…

It makes no difference whose phone you use. The system merely tracks the movement of the phone and builds up profiles of patterns of movement for analysis. For instance, someone who arrives at the venue between 12:30 an 1pm is perhaps more likely to stop for a meal than those arriving at other times. Or an individual who visits fashion store X is more likely to also visit fashion store Y than anyone else.

They don’t know or care who you are!

…..remove battery to avoid tracking ??

This is not new it has been going on for many years, yes it is intrusive and unethical but it is the way of the world. Companies have increased their sales by as much as 20% using the information gathered, for example they can do things like ID the country the person is from, where people gather most, which goods are picked up and looked at (linked to RFIDs attached to the items), which parts of the shopping center are most used (which allows stores to locate in those areas) etc etc. Some countries have signs in Shopping centers which make you aware you are being tracked and can switch off your phones – which is usually impractical. Add this all to the cameras and you have everything apart from the underware you have on being recorded about you !!

evie says:
8 January 2012

Sounds like another reason not to buy a smartphone!

That was my initial thought, but I believe that ordinary mobile phones can also be tracked.

Paranoid says:
10 January 2012

The argument that we are already being watched by cameras and so on does not stand up. Incidentally, I do not agree that I should be watched everywhere I go and I would welcome a lot less intrusion into my life. Just because some sort of surveillance is already hounding us does not give others the right to track mobile phones. It is not practical to turn off a phone if you need to be contactable – and why should a company force us to change what we want to do because they want to track us and make money from the resulting data?

I have never understood why credit reference agencies can sell our data (that we never consented to them having in the first place) and make money out of us in this way. Equally I cannot understand why companies using this type of tracking by phone should be able to make money from data that has not been consented to. There is way too much data being gathered without our consent and one day we will wake up and realise that we have no privacy and no life to call our own.

Paranoid – I was just pointing out what is in existence currently not creating an argument, I do not agree with it but it is there (along with a lot of other clever stuff) and we do not have much privacy at all thesedays. Get rid of your car as it is tracked, get rid of your credit cards as they provide an audit trail, pay everything in cash do not catch a train, bus or fly, never make a phone call or use the internet, do not go on holiday especially in city centres etc.etc. Someone is definitely watching or tracking you !!

I want a device that scrambles these attempts – could someone make me one, I’d have great fun walking into stores and screwing up their spy systems.

What happened to the rights of dignity and Privacy?


There is a system which switches off mobile phones and puts them onto voicemail . Developed some years ago (they are illegal in the uk), they were created by the Israeli secret service to stop people making calls when they carried out raids. I want one to stop all the morons who talk rubbish on the phones, in shops, trains, pubs, planes etc. I would rather do that than stop the silent monitoring which takes place.

I want one to stop all the morons who talk rubbish on the phones, in
shops, trains, pubs, planes etc

To mitigate matters, believe there’s a device of special headphones
that on wearing CANCELS OUT noise from all external sources…..
haven’t seen it marketed lately….. some people seem to
talk rather (very) loudly in confined spaces…. should be nice to be able to
disable their conversations especially long garbage ones that go
and on endlessly.

Also to counter annoying announcements on the Tube in London
as to use of said headphones…. I can’t read a book in peace.

Noise cancelling headphones only cancel out predictable noise, which means continuous sounds such as engines, machinery hum etc. They don’t work on constantly varying sounds such as conversations, although like any other headphones they will physically block out some sound.

Using the tags in clothing, they might even know what underwear you’re wearing! I think this is another step to far – big brother is a scary scenario, but slowly (or maybe not so slowly) and surely more and more of our lives are being recorded and used for the benefit of multinationals and governments.

To anybody who thinks this is ‘innocent’ and not worth bothering about – I would say do some research. It doesn’t matter that you are not doing anything illegal. The information they are able to collect can be sold or used for whatever purpose they choose – all without our permission!

Snowdin says:
13 January 2012

I am amazed that me and the missus are able to wander round shopping centres, gardens, villages, cities quite separately without ever having to turn on our mobiles. Do we have abnormal powers or is it just a simple matter of agreeing intent, budget and boundaries?
Surely this tracking technology is already widely used in motoring. How else would the sign on the M3 at Winchester know that it will take me 35 minutes to reach the M4 at Newbury. Similarly I can plan a journey using the traffic flow function on an Ipad Maps app. or the web based Tom Tom route planner taking account of the traffic and delays. This was really useful last winter when snow was closing some roads, and I could see traffic snarling up or clearing almost live. And I recently noticed in Shanghai that motorway junction signs were beautifully showing live information on traffic flow leaving the motorway using red, amber or green branches. Surely that’s all from tracking mobile signals and very beneficial to the individual and the economy.
Inside private space the customer probably should have a choice, ie. notification and they are almost certainly being tracked by cameras anyway. As long as it’s truely anonymised and not continued outside the store it should probably be OK … but then Google street maps should have been OK but they were additionally collecting undisclosed wifi security data, or that’s as much we know so far. It’s what isn’t disclosed, because some of these firms appear to have no understanding of legitimate boundaries, that really bothers me.

I am not keen on this system, but perhaps it could help Tesco discover some of the incompetence that goes on in their stores, or at least in the one where I shop.

This afternoon (Sunday) I rushed to Tesco to do some shopping before the store closed at 4 pm. As soon as it was announced that the store was closed and customers should make their way to the checkout, I did so. I was sent away from four, possibly five, checkouts before I found a checkout operator who would allow me to join the queue. Then the lights above the checkouts were switched off, with people still being served. After paying for the goods I made my way to Customer Services, to be told that it was closed. I asked politely to make a brief comment and explained what had happened. ‘Would you like to speak to the checkout supervisor?’ I said that I had done this several times before and asked if it would make any difference. The young lady smiled broadly, but managed not to burst into laughter. The junior staff in this branch are generally pleasant and efficient, but the management is dreadful.

Perhaps if a scanning system was in operation Tesco Head Office could see people running from one checkout to the other at closing time and blocking the aisles with long queues at other times.

Just Me says:
19 January 2012

I don’t like the idea of being tracked, however as one comment rightly pointed out, shopping malls are private property and we choose to use them.

However, I don’t own a mobile telephone, never have, never will, so it’s no big deal to me. Likewise I kind of like the idea that everyone might wish to turn their mobile telephones off, as I am a little tired of dodging out of the way of people not looking where they are going all of the time.

From another thread, but relevant here.

George Orwells book 1984 envisaged hidden cameras in TV sets.
Even he didn’t think we could actually be conditioned to buy cameras install them ourselves, then leave them connected 24/7, and pay to do so.

We have the nightmare scenario of being microchipped when born, so a big brother state will be able to control us by monitoring our every move.

Why bother when we will buy the chips ourselves, carry them everywhere 24/7, store loads of intimate and personal data on them and pay to do so.

Smartphone techs only purpose is to track the dummies that use them.

corinne diable says:
23 March 2015

Reguarding shop spy. Sainsburys sent me Nectar vouchers for certain goods that i had bought a few weeks before. At the time i thought it was very strange how they knew what i had actually bought .Didnt think about the fact that they were spying now i am very wary about it

In days gone by people who saw or heard things coming from TV sets or monitors were promptly taken away, incarcerated and put on antipsychotic medication. Have the tables now turned and it is modern day technology that is bordering on insanity and if I complain about “big brother” intruding on my personal circumstances can I now expect to be assessed 1984 fashion as to the state of my mind? Heaven forbid what the future beholds for the younger generation!