London dumps its smartphone-tracking trash bins

Wed, 2013-08-14 06:10 -- Liz Enbysk

We're all for using smart technologies to boost local economies. But we've got to agree with the city of London that a trial project apparently designed to help vendors target advertising by tracking smartphones of passers-by was not well conceived. Or as a city spokesman told the BBC: "Irrespective of what's technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public."

The tracking trash bin scenario has been likened to the use of cookies on a website, where operators can track return users and monitor what they do on the site. The next time they log on, they may see an ad related to what they were looking at the last time they visited.

In the real-world example, the Internet-connected trash bins, in addition to collecting data, have advertising screens on them. The idea is that Renew, the company behind the bins, sells the space to vendors who want to reach specific demographics.

According to an explanation in Quartz Magazine, "the bins record a unique identification number, known as a MAC address, for any nearby phones and other devices that have Wi-Fi turned on. That allows Renew to identify if the person walking by is the same one from yesterday, even her specific route down the street and how fast she is walking."

Quartz gives an example of a pub, which might install the same type of tracking devices in several locations, for instance by its entrance, near the cash register, in the bathrooms, etc. That way the bar knows a person's gender (based on the bathroom used), how long they stayed, what they ordered. The pub's targeted advertisements, then, could follow the person around from trash bin to trash bin.

Renew has said that the tracking doesn't reveal the smartphone owner's identity or other personally identifying information; that it is basically a glorified people counter collecting anonymous/aggregated data.

But privacy groups see it differently.

"I am pleased the City of London has called a halt to this scheme, but questions need to be asked about how such a blatant attack on people's privacy was able to occur in the first place," Nick Pickles, director of a UK privacy advocacy group, said in a statement carried by the GlobalPost.