Shops can track you via your smartphone, privacy watchdog warns

LONDON: The UK’s data protection watchdog has warned that retailers can track every move of their customers using their phones and target them using facial recognition software.

The technology, which has been available for the last couple of years in some form, is capable of tracking a smartphone using the unique identifier that it broadcasts via Wi-Fi. It is the same as that used by beacons which track smartphones using the unique Bluetooth identifiers every smartphone puts out when the wireless communications service is switched on.

Simon Rice, the group manager for technology with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said, “This techno-logy, which is starting to be rolled out in shops, allows retailers to use the customer journey to build up a picture as to how people typically use the store. It uses the MAC address of a smartphone which can, in many cases, be linked to a specific individual.

“Picture the scene, you’re in a department store and decide to go back and try that pair of trousers on for a second time. How would you feel if the price had changed or a display lit up with a three-for-two offer?”

The difference between Bluetooth-tracking beacons and Wi-Fi tracking systems is that the modern smartphone leaves Wi-Fi on, even when manually switched off for data connectivity, as a way of pinpointing its location. It is part of the location services with GPS and cellular network triangulation, which speeds up positioning for mapping and other location-dependent services.

“When this type of technology is used to generate aggregate statistics about daily visitor numbers or to generate an alert if an area is overcrowded, it can be done in a privacy-friendly manner,” Rice said. “Even if the identification of individuals is not the intended purpose, the implications of intelligent video analytics for privacy, data protection, and other human rights are still significant. For example the technology could be used to play recorded messages to reprimand litter picking or illegal parking.”

ICO is currently drawing up guidelines on the use of the technology as part of an international working group on data protection in telecommunications, which will involve informing shoppers that they are being tracked and that

facial recognition systems are being used in the area, similar to the warnings of CCTV operations.