Big Brother malls trigger privacy row after installing equipment to spy on shoppers via their mobiles
Technology installed at ten of UK’s biggest malls
Will track movement but not personal information, developers insist
Tiny yellow sign only warning of ‘FootPath’ scanners
By Rob Waugh
Last updated at 12:10 AM on 5th January 2012
Shopping centres have triggered a Big Brother row after installing equipment that allows them to track customers using their mobile phone signals.
The technology has raised privacy concerns after it emerged that major shopping centre owner Land Securities has installed it at ten of Britain’s biggest malls.
These include the giant Cabot Circus, Bristol; Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth; Princesshay, Exeter; Buchanan Galleries, Glasgow; Bon Accord & St Nicholas, Aberdeen; and The Centre, Livingston.
A tiny yellow sign in Exeter’s Princesshay shopping centre is the only warning customers receive that their mobile phone signal is being ‘tracked’ by Footpath’s scanners. There is no way to opt out except not to enter or to turn off your mobile
‘The only way to opt out is to turn your mobile phone off. You’re not asked if you want to take part It is assumed that the shopping centre has the right to track people,’ says Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch
Malls using the FootPath system in the London area include One New Change and New Street Square in the City; Cardinal Place, Victoria; and The Galleria, Hatfield.
Path Intelligence, which developed the system in the UK, said it includes safeguards to prevent spying on individuals and that no personal information is collected.
Rather, it is designed to track people’s movements to better understand what shops and services they find most interesting or useful.
However, most shoppers are completely in the dark about the tracking technology, and the only way to escape it is to turn off the mobile phone.
The ‘warning’ sign in the Princesshay shopping centre. Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch says, ‘It is assumed that the shopping centre has the automatic right to track people’s mobile phones – to me that’s wrong.’
Nick Pickles, of privacy and civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said the law needs to be tightened to cope with new mobile phone tracking systems.
‘People are right to be worried that their mobile phones can be turned into tracking devices very easily, without their permission or knowledge,’ he said.
‘While we have been given assurances that the FootPath technology is not capable of capturing personal information or sending communications to people’s phones, other technologies which would allow this are available.
‘Such tracking and communications would be a significant intrusion on privacy.’
Shoppers told about the tracking were concerned that they were effectively being followed without their permission.
Path Intelligence says that its use of phone-tracking technology is widespread on Britain’s High Streets – and that ‘major’ chains already use the technology
A customer at Princesshay, Hilda Luscombe, said: ‘This is another invasion of our privacy. We shouldn’t have to switch off our phones to opt out. This is just spying on us.’
Another customer, Robert McConnell, said: ‘In the George Orwell book 1984 everyone was saying ‘‘Big Brother Is Watching You’’. In 2012, everyone is asking ‘‘Who’s watching Big Brother?’’.’
Path Intelligence chief executive Sharon Biggar wouldn’t name all the malls using the system, to maintain the privacy of the firm’s clients. So shoppers can only know it is being used if they spot the small signs put up by the centres.
Miss Biggar insisted the technology had been misunderstood. ‘This is in no way an invasion of privacy, we cannot identify shoppers’ information,’ she said.
‘We cannot identify phone numbers or who an individual customer is. It is very much like watching dots walking around a room.
‘We are very open with the public. We ask our clients to have signage up where the system is operating. The signs are exactly the same as the ones for CCTV.’
She insisted the system was far less intrusive than the tracking used by internet giants who follow the activities of online shoppers.
Land Securities said the technology ‘is fairly common in the retail arena’ and added: ‘We are not monitoring a private individual. We record the movements of a mobile phone. We are not holding any data on anyone, all we get is a red dot telling us where it travelled to.’