The City of London has banned a trial programme that allows rubbish bins to track passersby using the WiFi on their smartphones.
Halfway through last year Renew, the company behind the futuristic bins, installed 100 bins, each fitted with digital screens, in the London district of Square Mile. The screens offered advertising space to marketers; the City of London also received five per cent of airtime to broadcast public information.
Renew’s problems began when it recently installed 12 of these bins with smartphone tracking devices. By collecting unique identification numbers (called MAC addresses) from passing smartphones enabled with WiFi, the bins were able to count devices and recognise whether people who were walking by were doing so for the first time or were repeat visitors on a daily commute to work. The programme, Renew Orb, was able to identify smartphones by proximity, speed, duration and manufacturer. The aim was to provide information on the passersby for marketers to allow them to broadcast more targeted advertisements.
Now, the company has canned the trials after the City of London asked them to stop collecting people’s data. A spokesperson from the council said the programme “needs more thought” and that, in the meantime, “data collected – even if it is anonymised – needs to stop”.
Renew CEO Kaveh Memari wrote a release on the website, blaming journalists’ quest for a good headline for exaggerating the company’s technology. “The process 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,” he said.
The only way to avoid being tracked by the bins was to turn off your smartphone’s WiFi or fill in an opt-out form online. Unlike websites, which must ask users’ permission before they put tracking cookies on their computers in the EU, smartphones are in somewhat of a grey area – because they are relatively new, there’s still no official ban on companies tracking MAC addresses.