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Spying Trash Cans Banned

Foot-traffic counting scheme spooks London city managers.

Thomas Claburn

August 12, 2013

3 Min Read

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London officials have demanded that a handful of recycling and waste bins equipped with mobile device tracking technology stop collecting data about the cellphones of pedestrians.

The City of London Corporation, an 800-year-old elected body tasked with making the city attractive to businesses, issued a statement on Monday directing Renew London, a media technology company, to halt its wireless device monitoring project, intended to count foot traffic.

"We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately and we have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner's Office," said a spokesman for the group in a statement. "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."

London incidentally has more than 50,000 closed-circuit TV cameras recording its residents on a daily basis.

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In June, Renew London, a media startup that installed 100 Internet-connect trash bins with display screens in the city for the 2012 Summer Olympics, turned 12 of its bomb-proof receptacles into wireless data collectors. The purpose of the experimental units, which ingest trash and expel ads, is to obtain analytics data of interest to local businesses.

The firm's "Renew Pods" track the proximity, speed, duration and manufacturer of passing mobile devices using their MAC addresses. Renew touts the data as a tool for corporate clients and retailers that can associate the past behavior of unique devices -- "entry/exit points, dwell times, places of work, places of interest and affinity to other devices" -- with predictive analytics about "likely places to eat, drink [and] personal habits," among other things.

This data is supposed to be anonymous, though numerous studies have demonstrated that anonymous data can often be used to identify individuals. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology said in 2010 that MAC addresses may be considered personally identifiable information.

Renew CEO Kaveh Memari, who previously described the technology as a way to "cookie the street," dismissed concerns about the technology in a statement released on the company blog.

"[T]he process is very much like a website," Memari explained. "[Y]ou 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 we couldn't tell, for example, whether we had seen devices or not as we never gathered any personal details."

Memari insists the pilot project is simply "a glorified counter on the street" and promises to consult with privacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation as the technology is refined. Given recent revelations about the extent of data gathering by the National Security Agency around the globe, however, Renew may have a hard time overcoming public skepticism about the need for more tracking technology.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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