Don’t look now, but that recycling bin may be following you

The City of London has trashed those recycling bins that track cell phones. But what other creepy inanimate objects are recording your movements?

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I am happy to report that good has triumphed over evil. The Eye of Sauron has been blinded. Voldemort is dead. The death star has imploded, yet again.

In short, you are now free to walk the streets of London without wondering whether the rubbish bins are following you.

Last week, a small hubbub ensued after Quartz reported that electronic recycling bins in the heart of a posh London retail district were recording data from the mobile phones of passers by. The company that created them, Renew, had installed 100 electronic bins around London in time for last year’s Olympics.

Source: Renew London

The bins have screens that display ads and public safety information (but mostly ads). About a dozen of them also collect the MAC addresses from passersby whose smartphones have WiFi turned on. At least, they did until yesterday, when the City of London announced plans to nix the bins – or at least, shut off the snoopy ones.

According to Quartz, the bins were designed to help advertisers hone their marketing efforts.

Say a coffee chain wanted to win customers from a rival. If it had the same tracking devices in its stores, it could tell whether you’re already loyal to the brand and tailor its ads on the recycling bins accordingly. …Over time, the bins could also tell whether you’ve altered your habits….

Kaveh Memari, CEO of Renew, doesn’t think what his company is doing violates anyone’s privacy.

“From our point of view, it’s open to everybody, everyone can buy that data,” Memari told Quartz. ”London is the most heavily surveillanced city in the world…As long as we don’t add a name and home address, it’s legal.”

In other words, since you’re already being egregiously spied upon via CCTV, you won’t mind a private corporation collecting data about your movements without telling you, let alone obtaining your permission. According to the report in Quartz, on a single day in July the bins registered more than 100,000 unique devices, collecting nearly a million data points about them.

Yet Memari was fairly pissy about being forced to bin his nosey recycling bins. In a letter posted to the Renew London Web site, he wrote: 

I’m afraid that in the interest of a good headline and story there has been an emphasis on style over substance that makes our technology trial slightly more interesting than it is.

During our current trials, a limited number of pods have been testing and collecting annonymised [sic] and aggregated MAC addresses from the street and sending one report every three minutes concerning total footfall data from the sites. A lot of what has been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now. For now, we continue to count devices and are able to distinguish uniques versus repeats. It is very much like a website, you can tell how many hits you have had and how many repeat visitors, but we cannot tell who, or anything personal about any of the visitors on the website.

So it’s just like Web tracking. That’s surely not likely to upset anyone, is it? The company that developed the technology, Presence Orb, calls it “a cookie for the real world.” Apparently they too are oblivious to the furor tracking cookies have created on both sides of the pond.

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