Yeah, they’re paying $40K a month to learn what language their customers speak.

Shops track customers via mobile phone – Times Online

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.”

Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that the phone company wouldn’t just give that information out for the right price or to someone claiming official authorization, associating phone IDs with names is as simple as watching the name on the credit card when a phone arrives at the checkout counter. (Or the name on the customer loyalty card. Or, for that matter, the number on the license plate when the phone gets into a car in the parking lot.)

And for practical purposes the association only has to be made once. So once you’ve caught someone using an identifiable payment method, you can track all the rest of their purchases even if they use cash. (And track them the next time they come to the mall, and the next, and when they go somewhere else with the same system installed…)

El Reg says that you may be able to get a new ID from some GSM networks by resetting your phone, but we all have a pretty good idea how often that happens.

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