Brainwave readers or Wi-Fi detectors? Walkbase lands at Helsinki-Vantaa

How would you feel if your phone’s Wi-Fi was secretly being followed around the airport?

However it makes you feel, you better get used to it, because it’s about to happen anyway.

Wi-Fi positioning has already been implemented in various airports around the world, but Helsinki-Vantaa will be the first one ever to have the entire range of it’s facilities covered with hundreds of Wi-Fi detecting boxes that will track passenger movements around the clock, quietly gathering business intelligence data for terminal performance improvement.

The detection grid will be set up as a result of a recent Finavia deal with Espoo-based retail tracking analytics startup Walkbase. Their collaboration with Finavia – which operates the Helsinki Airport – is expected to be worth several hundred thousand euros in the next few years.

The Walkbase stunt quickly took an off-context direction in international media: clickbaiting, privacy radars going of the charts and journalists turning into whistleblowing chickens.

“The fact that my movements are tracked is a scarier thought than someone knowing which websites I visit,” Antti Tikkanen, director of security response at software maker F-Secure Oyj (FSC1V), said in an phone interview with Bloomberg. “I have a hard time believing location tracking is only left at statistics when the same technology makes so many other things possible.”

The truth of the story, however, is less of an Orwellian omen and more of a management tool to increase productivity. But just in case you’re still not convinced, maybe this quote will help:

“All of Walkbase’s development has been based on maintaining very strict privacy standards at the core of the product” said Tuomas Wuoti, CEO and co-founder of Walkbase. “We cannot see, and do not store, any personal information about the user or owner of the device” he stressed.

Believe what you will, but you could think of the detectors as nothing more than counting machines that register the number of open Wi-Fi connections passing their proximities. According to Walkbase, this could be up to 60-70% of all mobile phones.

As a result, airport management will receive real-time data of human clusters around the terminal, much like a heat map would display a multitude of people. The movement flow data can be used to improve terminal productivity, which travellers can really come to appreciate after a few unpleasant hours spent queuing for a security check, when unbeknownst to them there was an empty checkpoint on the other side of the building.

The Walkbase/Finavia deal will roll out in two phases. The first phase, which has already begun, will be sort of the airport management’s test run. That is, with 300 detectors they can identify any passenger flow bottlenecks within the terminal, at security, or in particular shopping areas.

The second phase, which will take in course of the next months, will be offering the information to the passengers based on location through the Finavia mobile application with an opt-in option. That means passengers can receive push notifications on stuff like length of queues, whether there’s time to make it to the shop before departure or transfer directions within the terminal.

In “theory”, as Walkbase’s PR guy David MacDougall tells us, the app could notify passengers passing by about any special offers a store has to offer.

“For example, when you look at the “heatmaps” of people who just got through security, you could see how many passengers walk past the duty free and past the pub. Based on their movements, we can determine relevant locations for new shops or coffee houses”, MacDougall also points out.

Apparently due to scrutinizing journalists, MacDougall takes the initiative to explain that the detectors do not determine who an individual passenger is, but rather simply turns them into a number among others.

And I sort of have to agree with him. If it’s privacy people are worried about, it’s good to stop and consider that we’re talking about an airport here. Think security checks, passport and ticket checkpoints, hundreds of camera’s and 24/7 customs and police presence.

If it’s your location they’re after, they won’t have a hard time finding it. Instead of giving more reasons for tin foil hat mass production, I suggest we focus on the innovation angle, since that’s what the detectors are all about after all.