What’s the difference between seeing a red car and seeing a mobile device, Peter Beijer asked (NRC, Saturday), in response to Bas Heijne’s reaction to the news that Dixons and other stores track our behaviour using the unique signals of our mobile phones.
The answer depends on whether it’s a person or a machine that registers the cars and phones.
In Beijer’s example, there is a student in an orange safety vest standing by the road, studying the car traffic passing by. On any moderately busy road, that couldn’t go any further than just tallying, maybe including at most the car’s colour or brand.
In the case of Dixons and other stores, there is a computer registering every mobile device that passes by with its wifi turned on, including the device’s unique identification. In order to register the license plates of every car driving by Dixons, you would need thousands of students every day. So that comparison doesn’t hold up.
Being followed and tracked everywhere, all the time and by countless organisations is a dangerous development, because the combined data could be linked to an individual – whereas the student by the road only registered a red Volkswagen. If that student would take photos of every car (with the license plates visible), he’d be on thin ice with the law too.
Our right to personal privacy should make everyone feel free to be themselves within the boundaries set by the law. To develop their own thoughts, personalities and lives, without constantly having anonymous people and organisations looking over their shoulders. If all physical stores are going to gather information about mobile phones, photograph and analyse shopping behaviour including customer’s faces, and link that information to the digital traces people leave, then we are going to lose that freedom.
That’s why there can be no tracking of mobile devices that can be linked to individuals, nor of fingerprints or facial scans, without explicit consent being given.