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Poll: Is it ethical to track museum visitors’ movements using mobile phone wifi?

Nicola Sullivan, 03.05.2017
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An investigation into museums that use visitors’ mobile phone wifi to track their movements has revealed privacy concerns.

A series of Freedom of Information requests conducted by tech website Gizmodo UK revealed that the National Gallery and Natural History Museum in London, and the National Railway Museum in York had tested or deployed tracking software that could routinely track visitors’ movements using their mobile phone.
 
The FOI documents suggested that both the Natural History Museum and National Railway Museum have used Cisco software to track visitor locations. This kind of technology means that a signal can be picked up from phones with wifi switched on – even if it is not connected to the museum’s network.

A visitor’s location then shows up as a coloured dot on an electronic map of the site. The National Gallery has used software that allows it to create a heat map of the site. Similar technology has also been used by the Natural History Museum.

Information from the Railway Museum, showed there was a 96% correlation between the number of wifi devices connected and the actual data on the number of people in the museum.  Gizmodo’s report said that this shows that wifi data is likely to be reflective of the public at large, and can therefore, be used to shed light on how people move around the buildings, and engage with what’s on offer.
 
But the British Library in London decided against implementing similar technology because of concerns over privacy. “An interactive art installation that might have used this type of technology was briefly considered last year for inclusion in our recent ‘Drawing the Line’ maps exhibition but it was dismissed as too intrusive to our visitors’ privacy; instead a camera-based and time-delayed heat mapping technology was used to create the artwork in question instead,” it told Gizmodo.




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