CONWY County Borough Council is tracking some people’s mobile phone movements in Llandudno’s Mostyn Street – and it could be expanded to other areas of the county.
The move is part of a pilot project, run in partnership with Welsh Government, aimed at monitoring footfall on the town’s high street.
The scheme aims to provide evidence to businesses and economic development teams on where people are going so it can help inform decisions on businesses hours or where investment may be needed in the seaside resort.
But the news, revealed in a council digital strategy report on how the authority will move forward with its technology up until 2027, sparked a fierce debate when it was discussed during a financial resources overview and scrutiny committee meeting.
Llandudno councillor Harry Saville questioned how Conwy tracks members of the public who use its free WiFi services.
Once WiFi users log in at its offices, buildings, libraries, and leisure centres, with consent, the council collects data from users, which is then used for marketing purposes, such as promoting events.
As part of this separate pilot project, in partnership with Welsh Government, Conwy is able to track WiFi users’ mobile phones as they move around Llandudno’s Mostyn Street.
The phone triggers sensors at various points, registering each phone’s individual Mac Address and tracking the phone’s location.
Cllr Saville said: “I appreciate you are not capturing any personal data, but if we think, smartphones, and most people will only have one, the Mac Address, the identifier in many cases, is unique.
“So let’s say I go down Mostyn Street, you are not able to tell who I am personally, my age, my other details, but you know where my phone has been, and someone would be able to link to that to an individual wouldn’t they, potentially?”
Conwy IT manager Neil Payne replied: “Potentially, yes, if we had details of your phone contracts, which we don’t have, or if you went to the mobile phone providers, yes, potentially.”
He added: “The only location where footfall monitoring is switched on is on Mostyn Street. That was installed as a Welsh Government-led project, as part of a project called Patron, earlier this year.
“The initial purpose of it is to monitor footfall.
“So all it does is picks up what we call a Mac Address, a unique address, no personal details at all, and it just tracks the movement of those phones.
“The thinking behind it is to provide evidence to businesses or to the economic development teams around footfall, where people are going, how busy it is in towns so it can help make decisions of potential hours of businesses or where they might need to invest in Llandudno as a town.
He added: “It is a pilot project. We could expand it.
“As an example, we have got free WiFi across Abergele as well as the town, so we could look to expand it there, but nothing further has happened there with that as yet.”
Cllr Saville proposed Conwy ceased using footfall monitoring altogether unless it was contractually obliged.
But Kinmel Bay councillor Nigel Smith defended the pilot, suggesting taking that action could threaten applications for funding grants for public WiFi in other areas.
“We have been looking for free open WiFi for the town in the Kinmel Bay area,” he said.
“And I believe we are in the middle of applying for grant funding towards part of that scheme.
“Neil [Payne] has been open, explicit, and clued up all the town councillors on the whys and wherefores of all this type of technology, and it is something we’ve chosen to embrace.
“If Cllr Harry has this proposal and it is granted, then we won’t get the benefits that we really want for our residents and visitors to the east of the county.
“It has ramifications for the whole area, so this is not the place for this recommendation of Harry’s to be put forward.
“If he wants it [footfall monitoring] turned off in Llandudno, then that’s up to him to debate with Llandudno councillors, but don’t affect all the other councillors who want to embrace this technology.”
Cllr Cheryl Carlisle said: “I think it’s called democracy, Cllr Nigel.”
Cllr Saville reiterated he wasn’t saying the authority shouldn’t offer free public-spaces WiFi.
“My proposal is very clear and is specifically about the footfall aspect, which I think Neil has mentioned can be turned on or off,” he said.
Cllr Smith said: “Harry with his proposal and what he has said is actually scaremongering people in a way.”
He added: “I couldn’t find out what Cllr Harry’s Mac Address is if I wanted to. That’s the truth of the matter.
“I could quite easily go out and look at a registration on a car and monitor where that car goes, and nobody worries about that.
The committee voted against Cllr Saville’s proposal to cease the footfall monitoring pilot in Llandudno.
The committee backed the report, which will now go to cabinet for further consideration.