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12 Aug, 2013 22:29

Watched from a waste bin: UK pulls plug on ‘spy’ trash cans

Watched from a waste bin: UK pulls plug on ‘spy’ trash cans

The City of London has demanded that an advertising firm cease its ‘spy bin’ program which uses high-tech trash cans to track people walking through the city's financial district. The bins follow Wi-Fi signals and capture smartphone serial numbers.

Renew installed 200 bomb-proof bins with built-in Wi-Fi and digital screens inside London’s Square Mile during and after the 2012 Olympic Games. The firm initially offered to place advertisements and financial information on its “pods.” But in June, the agency started testing the bins’ wireless potential, subsequently launching a smartphone-tracking campaign.

The company’s ‘ORB’ technology scanned the streets for smartphones, indentifying the manufacturer of every device through unique media access control (MAC) addresses. It also detected the owner’s “proximity, speed and duration” of stay. Renew had hoped the program would attract advertisers and help companies in their marketing campaigns.

“The technology enables clients to accumulate data readings that will aid in compounding statistical analysis on trending demographics in high profile locations (and particularly a client’s own market share within the City relative to peers in the handheld manufacturing example),” the website’s press release said at the start of the ‘Renew ORB’ beta-testing.

The captured data – which encompassed 4,009,676 devices in just one week of testing – was to be sold to advertisers in “raw form.” Shop owners, for example, could find it very useful for analyzing their customers’ visit time and loyalty.

Instead, the program triggered a media storm, building on ‘spy bins’ hype. This was followed by public outrage and an official ban. Questions were raised regarding whether the scheme was completely legal.

Responding to the turbulent reaction, Renew’s ORB technology CEO attempted to downplay the trash bins’ data collection capabilities.

“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,” Kaveh Memari said in a Monday statement published on Renew’s website. He added that “none” of the proposed capabilities “are workable right now.”

Memari also assured that the MAC addresses collected during the pods’ beta-testing were totally “anonymized and aggregated.” He stressed that no personal details could be devised from analyzing such data, comparing the process to the work of a website counter.

Earlier, Renew promised the technology would enable it to “cookie the street.” The comment was in reference to internet cookies – tiny files created by websites to track an individual’s activity.

A City of London spokesman took a different position on the matter, saying, “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.”

According to the spokesman, the issue has been taken to the Information Commissioner’s Office – a UK public body dealing with data protection and freedom of information.

Renew appeared to be ready both for public discussion and for a legal battle, saying that “the law has not yet fully developed and it is our firm intention to discuss any such progressions publicly first and especially collaborate with privacy groups…to make sure we lead the charge on this as we are with the implementation of the technology.”

However, the firm admitted that such technology required “the future levels of protection” and “people being comfortable with interactive technology.”

Meanwhile, Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch – a civil liberties and privacy pressure group - said that questions need to be asked “about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur.”

People walk past a "pod" high-tech trash bin in the City of London (AFP Photo / Mona Boshnaq)