Danny O’Brien of EFF pointed out this profile of Toby Oliver of Path
Intelligence, which uses GNU Radio to build phone-monitoring
networks for shops:
Toby Oliver, CEO of Path Intelligence, is based in Portsmouth,
England, where he and his wife, Sharon, have built a hugely
interesting (and innovative) product on top of the GNU Radio open
source project, key parts of which they’ve helped to fund.
The social impact is covered here:
(See the comments for pointers to patents and such.)
Of course, though they say this data “isn’t correlated” with any other
info, all it would take is recording what image is taken by the
security cameras when an identifiable mobile phone “walks by”. And
with what charge card was used at the cash register when that same
phone is standing in front of it. And the license plate number (and
the RFID’s in the tires) of the car that’s going past when this mobile
phone passes your reader. Then you have the user’s picture, name,
credit card info, car registration, and maybe tyre RFIDs; all without
the help of the mobile operator.
Removing the battery from your mobile phone is going to get a lot more
popular, I expect. But at least we’ll have free software tools for
monitoring what info it’s leaking about you when the battery is in.
(How much of the Path Intelligence modules are in the main GR
Shops track customers via mobile phone
May 16, 2008
Customers in shopping centres are having their every move tracked
by a new type of surveillance that listens in on the whisperings of
their mobile phones.
The technology can tell when people enter a shopping centre, what
stores they visit, how long they remain there, and what route they
take as they walked around.
The device cannot access personal details about a person?s identity
or contacts, but privacy campaigners expressed concern about
potential intrusion should the data fall into the wrong hands.
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.
It has already been installed in two shopping centres, including
Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, and three more centres will begin using
it next month, Times Online has learnt.
The company that makes the dishes, which measure 30cm (12 inches)
square and are placed on walls around the centre, said that they
were useful to centres that wanted to learn more about the way their
customers used the store.
A shopping mall could, for example, find out that 10,000 people were
still in the store at 6pm, helping to make a case for longer opening
hours, or that a majority of customers who visited Gap also went to
Next, which could useful for marketing purposes.
In the case of Gunwharf Quays, managers were surprised to discover
that an unusually high percentage of visitors were German - the
receivers can tell in which country each phone is registered - which
led to the management translating the instructions in the car park.
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.
The receivers together cost about £20,000 to rent per month. About 20
the units, which are unobtrusive, cream-coloured boxes about the size
of a satellite dish, would be needed to cover the Bluewater shopping
Bluewater, in Kent, said it had no plans to deploy the equipment. A
spokesman for Gunwharf Quays was not available for comment.
Owners of large buildings currently have to rely on manual surveys
to find out how customers use the space, which can be relevant to
questions of design such as where the toilets should be located or
which stores should be placed next to one another.
Other types of wireless technology, such as wi-fi and Bluetooth, can
be used to locate devices, but the regular phone network signal is
preferable because it is much more powerful and fewer receivers are
needed to monitor a given area.
Phone networks have long been capable of gauging the rough location
of a handset using three phone masts, but the margin error can be as
great as 2km. The process is also less efficient when the phone is
indoors. Path Intelligence’s technology can tell where a phone is to
“within a couple of metres.”
“You’re basically going to know that that person has been in
Starbucks,” Toby Oliver, the company’s chief technology officer,
Even when the owner is not using it, a mobile phone makes contact
with the network every couple of minutes, which is enough for the
receivers to get a reading on its position.