Technology that allows retailers to track individuals through their Wi-Fi-connected smartphones and recognise them using video analysis could be exploited without customers' knowledge, the Information Commissioner’s Office has warned.
In a post on the ICO blog, analyst Simon Rice explains that despite the widespread use of Wi-Fi tracking and video recognition technology, no guidelines have so far been put in place to protect the privacy of individuals.
These technologies could allow store managers to monitor exactly how people behave in the store and how they react to various incentives such as sudden discounts or special offers.
Data privacy is at risk as these systems can reveal the MAC addresses of smartphones in the Wi-Fi network, which can be linked to an individual person. The same technology could be used to track people around airports, railway stations and whole towns and cities. It has even been proposed as a means for optimising public transport networks.
The question is how to take advantage of these systems without jeopardising privacy.
Rice said unique MAC addresses could be anonymised to prevent data being collected on individuals. The retailers could still use the data to, for example, monitor overcrowding and take measures to prevent it.
Smart advertising displays capable of distinguishing who is looking at them, and for how long, could pose another problem. Such technology already exists and could be used to target adverts based on who is standing in front of the screen.
“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,” Rice concludes. ”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.”