/ 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…