After participating in a meeting of the International Working Group on Data Protection and Telecommunications, ICO's staff decided it was time to inform users of modern-day tracking habits and also urge retailers to take the proper measures needed to safeguard user privacy.
For quite some time now, it has been known that Wi-Fi signals from modern smart devices allow a third-party to track the gadgets' movements. What ICO discovered is that retailers are actively using this information in their marketing campaigns, without warning users in any way in advance.
Tracking shoppers via their smartphones is not a theory anymore. Tracking usually involves mapping each user's smartphone MAC address, shared automatically whenever they enter or leave the store's WiFi network. Additionally, smart CCTV systems are also used to track users, record faces in a database, track user movements around a store, and eventually to tie a MAC address to each shopper.
This data is then later used to show discounts, special offers, or in some cases, the data is even sold to various online advertisers. "The use of this type of technology is not just confined to the retail environment - airports, railway stations and even city-wide Wi-Fi networks could use it to monitor individuals," says ICO's Simon Rice, Group Manager for Technology.
But it's not all gloom-and-doom, as Mr. Rice has also pointed out that this type of technology is also used to detect crowded areas in a store, issue security alerts, gather generic usage statistics, and for various other privacy non-intrusive actions.
ICO would like to protect user privacy above everything else
What ICO is suggesting is for official guidelines to be put in place in order to govern how WiFi location tracking can be used, to prevent situations where companies abuse this tech to track and profile users with abusive or fake discounts. Furthermore, ICO would also like if retailers grouped together and created a sign or image that could be used in the same way as the classic "surveillance camera" icon that's plastered on walls and doors whenever CCTV cameras are installed nearby.
A sign like this would let shoppers know their activities are being tracked via their smartphone's WiFi system, and allow them to turn it off when entering a store. Of course, the debate remains open, and after years of being tracked online via Google's services, most users don't see anything wrong with getting customized ads. Those who do see something wrong usually have something against Google hosting their personal Web browsing habits and then using the data for other things besides just showing ads.
Since online retailers aren't the most trustworthy businesses around, many people would like to avoid having their personal shopping habits recorded or exposed by companies that still fail to protect basic credit card payments and are often subject to data breaches or PoS malware incidents.