Controversial tracking technology will be deployed in Brisbane’s CBD under a plan to snoop on visitors’ movements throughout the Queen Street Mall and South Bank.
The technology, from UK-based company Path Intelligence, intercepts mobile phone signals to track each person as they move around the area.
But while the company insists it doesn’t collect private data and all information is anonymous, a privacy expert has warned it is “basically spying” and could breach Australian law.
A spokeswoman for Brisbane Marketing, a subsidiary of the Brisbane City Council, said the tracking technology would give insight into visitor movements while maintaining privacy.
“Path Intelligence anonymously monitors the signals from passing mobile devices to measure pedestrian traffic flow,” she said. “The aim is to gain feedback to improve the logistical management of the precinct through improved pedestrian flows, security placement, cleaning and delivery zones. It will also assist in planning future growth and upgrades of the precinct.”
She said the plan was in the proposal stage and could not provide a timeline for the intended rollout but visitors’ privacy would remain protected as a feature of the system.
“The sensors only detect presence. No data is collected that can identify the mobile phone user such as a serial number, phone number or the owner’s identity,” she said.
The Path Intelligence system has been in use in Surfers Paradise for about 12 months and has provided invaluable data to local businesses and law enforcement.
Surfers Paradise Alliance chief executive Mike Winlaw said the system covered four key areas of the Gold Coast CBD – The Esplanade, Cavill Mall, Orchid Avenue and Ferny Avenue – and was used to improve facilities, infrastructure and services such as cleaning.
“It’s great technology . . . it helps us fully understand what’s required to service the precinct from an international tourism perspective,” he said.
While the technology picks up a phone’s unique identifier, this is not sent to Path Intelligence or back to the client, which instead receives a weekly report with aggregated information on crowd numbers and foot traffic patterns.
Mr Winlaw said the data was shared with local business owners, the Gold Coast City Council and the police to help them plan around peak periods and typical visitor movements.
Not everybody is happy with the introduction of the technology, with concerns it breaches visitors’ rights to privacy.
Australian Privacy Foundation vice-chair David Vaile said the technology misused the telephone network by using it to snoop on unsuspecting visitors.
He said any such technology should have an open and transparent privacy assessment so citizens could be comfortable their personal data wasn’t being collected and that the system wasn’t vulnerable to abuse or hacking.
“They’re basically spying on you . . . The phone system wasn’t put there to enable people to spy on other people by tracking them, its only purpose was for facilitating calls,” he said.
Mr Vaile said the technology could be in breach of telecommunication law, and differing international definitions of “anonymous” meant such tracking systems could also breach the Privacy Act.
Chermside resident Alicia Hassall, 30, said she was not comfortable with being tracked via her mobile phone whenever she visited the Queen Street Mall, even if it were anonymous.
“I just think it’s a bit of an invasion of privacy, I think there may be a way of doing it without it becoming so personal,” Ms Hassall said.
She said visitors should be made aware when tracking technology was in use in stores and public areas.
Author: Anthony Gough