Electronic BINS in the heart of London must stop tracking hundreds of thousands of passing smartphones, officials have demanded.
A dozen or so high-tech rubbish cans - which display adverts and information on built-in flat-screens and are dotted around the capital's financial district's pavements - were set up to collect data from nearby phones.
The recycling bins, operated by Renew London, used Wi-Fi networking to identify devices using their individual MAC addresses, effectively handing over the "proximity, speed ... and manufacturer” of the gizmos. MAC addys are unique to each network interface out there, although they can be easily altered by software if one is in the know; the addresses also reveal the maker of the networking chipset.
The company said it used these so-called bin-based ORBs to silently detect 4,009,676 devices in one week, although that really amounts to 530,000 unique phones.
Renew, which said the collected data was "anonymised" before it was analysed, hoped to use this technology to track footfall in shopping areas and perhaps even show tailored adverts to people as they walked by the bins.
But the first pilot testing the Orb system has now been cancelled after The City of London Corporation, which oversees the centre of the Big Smoke, pulled the plug. The authority only found out about the trial when journalists got hold of the study, a source told The Register. A report has also been made to Blighty's privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner.
A spokesman for the corporation said: "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.
"This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought. In the meantime data collection – even if it is anonymised - needs to stop."
(Don't forget that modern smartphone makers already track your movements by default: both Apple and Google already track people through their location services features, although these can be disabled. Unlike the tracking in the bins.)
In a statement, Renew boss Kaveh Memari claimed the reaction to his firm's technology was blown out of proportion.
He said: "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 initial trials, which we are no longer conducting, a limited number of pods had been testing and collecting anonymised 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." ®