Attention shoppers: Retailers can now track you across the mall

While the technology that the IT World article discusses isn’t terribly novel – I was given a paper conducted by grad students on this topic a few years ago, and they had a working prototype of similar systems – I find it incredibly worrying that ambient information that smartphones expel is being used for purposes in excess of why the information is transmitted in the first place. We don’t live in a (Western) world where lacking a cell phone is common; for many people a mobile phone is critical to their business or livelihood. Indeed, when you go to other areas of the world where mobile penetration is even higher because of exorbitant costs associated with laying down fibre, mobiles are even more important on a daily basis.

As such, and any suggestion like “if you don’t want to be tracked, don’t own a phone” misses the point around privacy concerns related to mobile phone tracking. In effect, it shouldn’t be up to the individual to unilaterally defend themselves from further expansions of private surveillance capabilities. Instead, those capabilities should be limited by law, by regulation, and by a minimalistic sense of ethics. Tracking where people are walking, and giving them an option to opt-out of tracking by visiting a website they’ve never heard of and digging into its depths is not a sufficient way to ‘empower’ individuals.