A new app for Regent Street shoppers will deliver targeted behavioural advertising – is it processing personal data?
My interest was piqued by a story in the Telegraph that
Regent Street is set to become the first shopping street in Europe to pioneer a mobile phone app which delivers personalised content to shoppers during their visit
Although this sounds like my idea of hell, it will no doubt appeal to some people. It appears that a series of Bluetooth beacons will deliver mobile content (for which, read “targeted behavioural advertising”) to the devices of users who have installed the Regent Street app. Users will indicate their shopping preferences, and a profile of them will be built by the app.
Electronic direct marketing in the UK is ordinarily subject to compliance with The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (“PECR”). However, the definition of “electronic mail” in PECR is “any text, voice, sound or image message sent over a public electronic communications network or in the recipient’s terminal equipment until it is collected by the recipient and includes messages sent using a short message service”. In 2007 the Information Commissioner, upon receipt of advice, changed his previous stance that Bluetooth marketing would be caught by PECR, to one under which it would not be caught, because Bluetooth does not involve a “public electronic communications network”. Nonetheless, general data protection law relating to consent direct marketing will still apply, and the Direct Marketing Association says
Although Bluetooth is not considered to fall within the definition of electronic mail under the current PECR, in practice you should consider it to fall within the definition and obtain positive consent before using it
This reference to “positive consent” reflects the definition in the Data Protection directive, which says that it is
any freely given specific and informed indication of his wishes by which the data subject signifies his agreement to personal data relating to him being processed
And that word “informed” is where I start to have a possible problem with this app. Ever one for thoroughness, I decided to download it, to see what sort of privacy information it provided. There wasn’t much, but in the Terms and Conditions (which don’t appear to be viewable until you download the app) it did say
The App will create a profile for you, known as an autoGraph™, based on information provided by you using the App. You will not be asked for any personal information (such as an email address or phone number) and your profile will not be shared with third parties
autograph (don’t forget the™) is software which, in its words “lets people realise their interests, helping marketers drive response rates”, and it does so by profiling its users
In under one minute without knowing your name, email address or any personally identifiable information, autograph can figure out 5500 dimensions about you – age, income, likes and dislikes – at over 90% accuracy, allowing businesses to serve what matters to you – offers, programs, music… almost anything
Privacy types might notice the jarring words in that blurb. Apparently the software can quickly “figure out” thousands of potential identifiers about a user, without knowing “any personally identifiable information”. To me, that’s effectively saying “we will create a personally identifiable profile of you, without using any personally identifiable information”. The fact of the matter is that people’s likes, dislikes, preferences, choices etc (and does this app capture device information, such as IMEI?) can all be used to build up a picture which renders them identifiable. It is trite law that “personal data” is data which relate to a living individual who can be identified from those data or from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller. The Article 29 Working Party (made up of representatives from the data protection authorities of each EU member state) delivered an Opinion in 2010 on online behavioural advertising which stated that
behavioural advertising is based on the use of identifiers that enable the creation of very detailed user profiles which, in most cases, will be deemed personal data
If this app is, indeed, processing personal data, then I would suggest that the limited Terms and Conditions (which users are not even pointed to when they download the app, let alone be invited to agree them) are inadequate to mean that a user is freely giving specific and informed consent to the processing. And if the app is processing personal data to deliver electronic marketing failure to comply with PECR might not matter, but failure to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 brings potential liability to legal claims and enforcement action.
The Information Commissioner last year produced good guidance on Privacy in Mobile Apps which states that
Users of your app must be properly informed about what will happen to their personal data if they install and use the app. This is part of Principle 1 in the DPA which states that “Personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully”. For processing to be fair, the user must have suitable information about the processing and they must to be told about the purposes
The relevant data controller for Regent Street Online happens to be The Crown Estate. On the day that the Queen sent her first tweet, it is interesting to consider the extent to which her own property company are in compliance with their obligations under privacy laws.
This post has been edited as a result of comments on the original, which highlighted that PECR does not, in strict terms, apply to Bluetooth marketing