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The mall could be tracking you as you shop

A Canadian real estate company already under investigation for using facial recognition technology in malls may also be tracking the movement of shoppers using mobile phones.

A former employee of Cadillac Fairview told CBC News he was aware of at least one of the company’s Canadian shopping centres that had a system installed to track cellphone movement throughout the mall to collect market research data.

CBC News has agreed to keep the former employee’s identity confidential. He worked directly for Cadillac Fairview in security for more than three years, and was responsible for providing access for the system’s installation in 2016.

He said he was told the system would monitor and note where each device, such as a cellphone, went within the centre, and how long it remained in any particular location, “whether you were just walking through the mall or whether you’re spending hours there dropping thousands upon thousands of dollars.”

Cadillac Fairview did not respond to repeated questions from CBC News about whether this system is still installed in its shopping centres and where it is used in Canada.

The company’s online privacy policy says some properties are equipped with sensors and cameras used to monitor foot traffic patterns that could predict “demographic information” about visitors during a shopping centre visit.

It also mentions tracking foot traffic using information such as a MAC address — a unique number that identifies any device capable of connecting to Wi-Fi.

The admission came after a patron noticed software running on one of the directories at Calgary’s Chinook Centre and posted an image to social media site Reddit.

In an earlier email to CBC News on that issue, Cadillac Fairview’s director of corporate communications, Janine Ramparas, said the company was suspending use of those mall directory cameras in response to recently announced privacy commissioner investigations.

Privacy experts told CBC News this type of tracking technology has existed and been in use for years.

“When a person enters any property, they can be tracked by the signal and the unique identifications of their cellphone,” said Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada.

Her organization had previously asked Alberta’s privacy commissioner to investigate whether Cadillac Fairview’s use of facial recognition was violating laws.

“They can track exactly where you go, how long you stand in front of a shop window, how long you’re in front of a particular display,” said Polsky.

The privacy advocate said it would be possible for facial recognition data to be cross-referenced with location tracking data in the future, if a company chooses to do so.

“Don’t forget that Person X is holding Phone Y,” said Polsky. “Because the information is available elsewhere, they can combine the information and identify you.”

Other experts say there could be unintended consequences from these technologies. They include Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner who now leads the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“You might think no big deal, just counting footsteps, counting how many people are here and what stores, etc.,” said Cavoukian.

“But when you link that with people’s individual mobile phones, which are linked to their identity, and you’re watching their movements — you’re tracking their movements throughout the mall and add facial recognition to that. I mean it’s nobody’s business where you go and what stores you shop at.”

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