Sunday, 22 January 2012

Unacceptably Intrusive Covert Surveillance

In the UK, it's a regrettable fact that we're used to being visually surveilled by closed circuit TV at all times and everywhere in public town-centre spaces - either by civic authorities when in public realm space, or by private security contractors when in commercially-operated space. Very often that commercially-operated urban space gives every appearance of being public realm space; a good example being the plaza on the top deck of Aberdeen's St Nicholas shopping centre, which connects pedestrian access between St Nicholas Street, the historic St Nicholas churchyard and Schoolhill/Upperkirkgate. It looks very much like public space, it provides a vital pedestrian access thoroughfare in the heart of the town and it just feels like a public realm space. But it isn't; it belongs to and is operated by Land Securities plc (LandSec, as they are known to insiders, is the UK's largest commercial property developer). Similarly, the border between public realm space and commercially-operated space is often ill-defined and it's difficult for the casual pedestrian to discern at what point his or her rights of way and freedom of assembly have been extinguished in favour of commercial exigencies. One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon in Aberdeen is the interface between the Rail Station and the Union Square shopping centre. The developers of the site have designed the commercial 'offering' (as they say) around pre-existing desire lines so that it's not easy for someone arriving by train in Aberdeen to find his or her way into public realm space without first passing through space which is part of the Union Square commercial venture and as so is operated by a private company.

Anyone who doubts that we have a good reason to be concerned about this; anyone who's prepared to trot out the old "if you've nothing to hide then you've nothing to fear" excuse for kowtowing to those who would surveil us at every possible opportunity should read this, and this, and this, and this. Oh, and this and this.

While we have serious concerns about the normalisation of blanket surveillance in urban space (at the risk of sounding starry-eyed naive) we at least preserve a hope that civil authorities do what they do in service of the greater good, on behalf of us all and answerable to our elected representatives. By contrast, surveillance undertaken by private security firms on behalf of the commercial operators of privately-owned urban space do so only in the service of profit, enhanced shareholder value (as they say). Still, though, at least we get warning of such surveillance - CCTV operators are obliged by law to display signs letting us all know that an area is covered by surveillance. These signs are indeed visible (adding ever more to streetfurniture clutter) in both town centre public and private realm spaces.

But now news reaches us via The Scotsman newspaper of an insidious new form of surveillance being 'rolled out' (as they say) across the shopping centres of Aberdeen.

Movements of shoppers tracked by 1984 phone technology
...unsuspecting shoppers who enter a shopping centre are now often tracked on a screen by retail staff – using their mobile phone signals to locate their path through the shops. 
Many Scottish centres are using the technology – which has been adopted by property giant Land Securities, which owns a large number of major shopping centres and has installed the tracking devices in ten of them – as well as rival Hammerson, which operates the technology at the Silverburn shopping centre in Glasgow and plans to install at its Union Square development in Aberdeen this year. 
The Buchanan Galleries in Glasgow, the Bon Accord and St Nicholas shopping centres in Aberdeen and Livingston’s The Centre are also among those north of the Border using FootPath, created by Path Intelligence, which is behind a range of technology to help shopping centre bosses plan their layouts. 
Path Intelligence chief executive Sharon Biggar refused to admit whether the technology was even in use in Scotland for “data protection” reasons – although she did acknowledge that it was utilised in centres in the UK and six other countries around the world.“We are not allowed to reveal the names of any of our clients because of data protection laws,” she told The Scotsman. However, while the company fiercely protects its paying clients, it does not give shoppers the same privacy. 
The refusal to list where this technology is in use means that shoppers are unaware that they are being tracked – unless they spot the small signs alerting them to the practice. However, even if they do see the signs, there is no option for them to opt out of the scheme without turning off their mobile phones. 
To which we'd add that the great majority of today's mobile phone handsets cannot be fully powered down without removing the battery, and so your phone will respond to a tracking ping even if you might think you've turned it off. 

This same Ms Biggar, of Path Intellegence, manufacturers of the intrusive surveillance technology, is also quoted in the Aberdeen Citizen freesheet ("BEST [sic] free newspaper in Scotland"):
"We are very open with the public. We ask our clients to have signage up where the system is operating. The signs are exactly the same as the ones for CCTV"
Yet, when we pass through Bon Accord and St Nicholas shopping centres, while we can see the signs which warn us of CCTV surveillance, we see no signs whatsoever warning us that we are to be subjected to this new form of distasteful electronic-tracking intrusion. The only indication of this novel and intimidating privacy-busting technology you get is if you manage to spot the sensors themselves. Here's one, it's about the size of a hardback book:

See if you can spot them next time you visit the Bon Accord and St Nicholas shopping centres! 

FootPath Technology 

The Path Intelligence FootPath system consists of a small number of discreet monitoring units installed throughout the centre. These units calculate the movement of consumers without requiring the shopper to wear or carry any special equipment. The units measure signals from the consumers' mobile phones using unique technology that can locate a consumer's position to within a few metres. These units feed this data (24 hours a day 7 days a week) to a processing centre, where the data is audited and sophisticated statistical analysis is applied to create continuously updated information on the flow of shoppers throughout the centre. At any time the shopping centre management can access the data via PI's secure web-based reporting system.
The FootPath technology is the only system available on the market today that can gather information on shopper paths continuously and accurately. FootPath can be installed in one centre or across a portfolio, providing you with quantifiable information to help you monitor your centre and assess the impact of your business decisions.
[our emphasis]
Interesting to note that the system is not closed; that is to say that it is not an discreet network within only the building it serves. Rather, the data that the system gathers is transmitted to a Path Intelligence central processing facility. (Who knows where? Most probably this function is itself outsourced to an offshore number crunching data centre.) The data, once analysed, is then distributed via the internet back to the subscriber. We cannot know whether this is local Bon Accord or St Nicholas centre management, or some central management facility of Land Securities plc. In any case, it's not just the shopping centre security contractor, nor the shopping centre management or owners who have access to information about your movements, the providers of the tracking technology also gather that data. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about this. Did you like the bit where they said that shoppers are "not required to wear or carry special equipment"? We suppose we should, at least, be thankful for that!

It is telling that, even as the operators of our shopping centres fail to notify us of the fact that this intrusive surveillance is taking place, the providers of the tracking technology make capital of the fact that the monitoring units are discreet. Why, unless they fear a backlash of public disgust and outrage, would the unobtrusive physical footprint of the tracking units be regarded as one of the benefits - the unique selling points (as they say) of this highly intrusive development in our cities? It's as if they're trying to keep their data-gathering activities as covert as possible.

Someone should tell them - if they've nothing to hide, then they've nothing to fear.

1 comment:

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