A company using recycling bins to track the smartphones of passers-by has been asked to stop by the City of London Corporation.
Renew, which has recycling "pods" featuring LCD advertising screens across London, had fitted its Orb technology to 12 bins in the Cheapside area of London to collect information on passers-by by identifying their smartphones’ wi-fi connections.
The trial scheme is exploring the possibilities of selling information to brands to create targeted advertisements, concerns about privacy raised over the weekend prompted the City’s local authority to act, with Renew's chief executive Kaveh Memari agreeing to temporarily stop trials.
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.”
The corporation says Renew’s bombproof waste and recycling bins were installed as a way of re-introducing waste bins to City streets, but the Orb technology allow the bins to log the media access control (MAC) address of individual smartphones – a unique identification code carried by all devices that can connect to a network.
“This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought. In the meantime data collection, even if it is anonymised, needs to stop,” added the spokesman.
But Memari claims that, “in the interest of a good headline” the capabilities of the firm’s technology have been overstated.
In a statement on the firm’s website he said: “During our current trials, a limited number of pods have been testing and collecting annonymised 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 has been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now. For now, we continue to count devices and are able to distinguish uniques versus repeats.
“It 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. So we cannot tell, for example, whether we have seen devices or not as we do not gather any personal details.
“Future developments will however not just depend on technology, but also, most importantly, on people being comfortable with interactive technology, much as has happened over the course of the weekend on the internet.
“This has always and continues to be our key concern. For now, simply think of Phase I testing as a glorified counter on the street. At this stage, we are only running a pilot with extremely limited, encrypted, anonymous/aggregated data.
“Come the time we discuss creating the future levels of protection, we can move to an improved service where we can bring better content to people.
“In doing so, we may find 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 such as EFF (the Electronic Frontier Foundation) to make sure we lead the charge on this as we are with the implementation of the technology.”