Patisserie Valerie, Pret A Manger and Aldi are reported to be involved in a new project monitoring high street footfall, which is courting controversy in the national media.

The SmartStreetSensor Project, launched at the end of June, is a partnership between the Local Data Company (LDC), The Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) and University College London, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It will involve the roll-out of 1,000 footfall sensors in 81 towns and cities across the UK. The sensor tracks wifi-enabled devices passing a location as a proxy for people.

LDC said: “We are launching this initiative with UCL to build on our detailed knowledge of how retail places are changing by combining this with footfall traffic patterns. By doing this, it will provide the most accurate picture of the relationship between places and people and what determines their success.”

LDC insists that the project will not be tracking individuals: “We will only use the data to count the number of people passing a location. We will not store MAC Addresses to track individuals.”

But the project has been met with criticism. Renate Samson of pressure group Big Brother Watch told The Daily Mail: “There have been plenty of studies to show these open wifi connections on smartphones mean that you can almost plot an individual’s movements right back to their home.

“It is a real concern that people will not know they are being scanned through the wifi on their phones. If they don’t know that it is happening, how can they choose to opt out by turning it off?”

The partnership claims that the project will enable participants to understand how the UK’s high streets are changing, how they are used and what impacts footfall patterns. Host sites of the project will not only be able to see their own store level footfall data, but also the insights and analysis of the project over the next three years.

LDC said its data showed that, in 2015, multiple retail and leisure occupiers closed a total of 1,043 high street stores. In contrast, 593 independent retailers opened in high street locations.

Earlier this year, research from PricewaterhouseCoopers and LDC showed high-street closures were at a five-year low.