August 12, 2013
London Protects Smartphone Users, Blocks Renew Tracking Bins
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
The city of London is preventing one company from using so-called “smart trashcans" to track smartphones as their users walk by on public streets.
Renew London, the start-up business behind the data-gathering recycle bins, has confirmed all tests have been stopped. It was revealed last week that the company was testing out tracking technology in some public recycling bins in London. Advertisers could then use this information to create targeted ads displayed on the bins.
Renew’s technology used the MAC unique identification number of each Wi-Fi enabled smartphone to identify a user, their specific routes and the speed at which they are walking. With this information Renew could learn about pedestrians' daily habits and sell this data to advertisers who want to tailor promotions to specific demographics.
“I can confirm that we are not currently running any trials,” explained Renew in a statement to Quartz.
The City of London also issued a statement of its own, saying: “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.”
"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,” said the statement.
Renew came under fire last week when it was revealed its trash cans were collecting personal data of a people passing the Renew Pods.
During last year’s London Olympics, Renew placed 100 recycling bins on public streets with advertising screens. Of these 100 bins, Renew outfitted 12 of them with “Renew ORB” devices, the hardware component responsible for sniffing out the MAC address of nearby smartphones. Renew sources the Orb from a company called “Presence Orb,” and, until the city banned all tests, the only way to be exempt from this gathering of data was to go to the company's website and opt-out.
“Although we will be sad to see you go we believe this is every device owners right,” reads the opt-out page at PresenceOrb.com.
According to European data protection regulators known as the “Article 29 Working Party,” Renew needs users’ permission before they start collecting MAC addresses rather than giving users the opportunity to opt-out.
Renew CEO Kaveh Memari tried to address public concern by blaming the outcry over collection of private data on the media’s attempt to write a “good headline” with an “emphasis on style over substance.”
“During our initial trials, which we are no longer conducting, a limited number of pods had 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 had been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now.”
Memari asks the public to consider what he calls “Phase 1 testing [as a] glorified counter on the street.”
In a separate article, Quartz claims that while the bins were operational, they collected data for more than one million unique devices in one month. The bins tracked as many as 106,629 people a day, recording their devices as many as 946,016 times.