Sunday, June 01, 2008

Mobile phones used as "cookies" in the offline world to track shoppers

According to the Times, some shopping centres in the UK have started using a system that tracks shoppers using the unique signals produced by customers' mobile phones. The Information Commissioner has cautiously approved the technology:
Shops track customers via mobile phone - Times Online

The surveillance mechanism works by monitoring the signals produced by mobile handsets and then locating the phone by triangulation ­ measuring the phone’s distance from three receivers.


The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) expressed cautious approval of the technology, which does not identify the owner of the phone but rather the handset's IMEI code -- a unique number given to every device so that the network can recognise it.

But an ICO spokesman said, "we would be very worried if this technology was used in connection with other systems that contain personal information, if the intention was to provide more detailed profiles about identifiable individuals and their shopping habits.”

Only the phone network can match a handset's IMEI number to the personal details of a customer.

Path Intelligence, the Portsmouth-based company which developed the technology, said its equipment was just a tool for market research. "There's absolutely no way we can link the information we gather back to the individual,” a spokeswoman said. “There's nothing personal in the data."

Liberty, the campaign group, said that although the data do not meet the legal definition of ‘personal information’, it "had the potential" to identify particular individuals' shopping habits by referencing information held by the phone networks.

This is similar to a form of "cookies" for the offline world. On the one hand, we have assurances that the phones' serial number will not be connected with other personal information, but there really is no assurance that will not happen. And once this information is collected, it will be in the system available to law enforcement and others who do have the ability to match it to personal information.

Via Schneier on Security: Tracking People with their Mobile Phones.

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