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Tracking in public spaces

The use of tracking technologies in public spaces is on the rise. This has adverse consequences for the right to privacy and may in some cases be unlawful.

For a long time, our online movements have been tracked. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, along with thousands of companies in the advertising industry, are dependent upon knowing and understanding their users. As we now carry our smart phones with us at all times, it has become possible to track us in the physical world as well. Tracking technologies are able to use our own private phones as a means to locate us and follow our movements. Using WiFi and Bluetooth tracking and beacons, companies and businesses are able to monitor our movements in detail.

Additionally, intelligent video analytics is employed in surveillance cameras to analyse us and trigger alarms based on our appearance or behaviour. Our movements are automatically translated into meaningful information. The cameras may recognise faces or number plates, identify our age or facial expressions or alert a company when a perimeter has been breached. 

Some companies use tracking technologies to calculate traffic delays during rush hour traffic or to estimate the waiting time at airport security. Others want to map and analyse their customers’ movements through shops and shopping centres in detail. Overall, the companies utilising tracking technologies are very different and pursue a wide range of objectives. 

Privacy and legal implications

When tracking technologies are in use, personal data is processed. Therefore, the use of WiFi and Bluetooth tracking, beacons, and intelligent video analytics is governed by the Personal Data Act.

The right to privacy applies in public spaces. In principle, everyone has the right not to be subject to tracking of their movements. Therefore, as a main rule, companies and businesses must obtain consent before tracking individuals. Also, it is essential that sufficient information be provided whenever tracking takes place. Covert tracking is illegal. 

When online tracking and tracking in the physical world are combined, the privacy implications can be severe. Such compilation of personal data may be disproportionate and violate the right to privacy. It is essential that companies and businesses utilising tracking technologies have clear procedures for the use and deletion of collected data. 

Tracking technologies can also lead to discrimination. For instance, some forms of intelligent video analytics are able to make assumptions about our solvency or ethnicity. This could lead to differential treatment. Also, the places we visit can reveal our state of health, religious beliefs, political views, or sexual orientation. This information is considered as special categories of personal data, and strict rules apply to the processing of such data. Tracking technologies should therefore be avoided in certain locations, such as medical clinics, places of worship, or during political demonstrations.

New report

We have issued a report that explains how these technologies work and how they are employed in Norway, investigates the privacy implications, and outlines guidelines for lawful use of tracking technologies.