Just browsing? The shop is tracking you

Now we can no longer rely on being anonymous, thanks to technology that allows stores to track our movements via our mobile phones or even identify us by scanning our faces, reports The Times.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a warning that it may need to take action to protect the privacy of shoppers being monitored without their permission.

The data protection watchdog says that some companies may already have used “wi-fi location tracking” without telling their customers.

Simon Rice, its technology manager, yesterday published a blog entitled: “How shops can use your phone to track your every move and video display screens can target you using facial recognition.”

He wrote: “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?

“What you may not realise is that technology has been developed which could allow the store to track your shopping movements using the wi-fi on your mobile phone.”

He said that the technology was already being introduced by shops seeking to build up a picture of how people typically used their stores. It could also be used to track passengers at airports and railway stations.

The technology identifies the MAC address of a smartphone, which can be linked to a specific individual.

Mr Rice is concerned about the use of facial recognition technology, which has been used by advertisers to determine the gender of customers as they pass by and tailor adverts on nearby screens for either men or women.

“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-dropping or illegal parking. One of the key implications of video analytics is that individuals have the right to know who is collecting what data about them and for what purposes.”

A spokeswoman for the watchdog was unable to give actual examples of misuse of the technology but said: “The ability is there.”