Smartphone tracking bins rubbished by City of London after privacy row

Smart bins across the City of London will no longer be able to collect data from smartphone users after the authorities stepped in to put a stop to the controversial practice.

UK-based startup Renew has been ordered to stop collecting data that identifies a passer-by according to their smartphone manufacturer and can measure their speed and proximity to the bin.

“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 a statement from the City of London Corporation.

Renew installed the “Renew Orbs” technology on a handful of their over 200 Renew Pods and the new gizmo allows the bins built-in Wi-Fi to identify a smartphone using its MAC address.

The new device, fitted on 12 of the firm’s bins, is aiming to “measure variables in market share between mobile handheld providers within the City’s Square Mile – the highest concentration of professionals in Europe”.

The information garnered, which comes from the MAC address, would then be sold to advertising companies to help them target their campaigns according to phone users that populate the Square Mile, according to QZ.com.

Advertising space on the bins, which sees advertisers buy time alongside local councils and charities who are given “up to a third” of the screentime, is sold to recoup the £30,000 outlay to build and install each bin. There is then a yearly cost of £500,000 per bin to maintain the device which they will also try to make back through advertising.

Problems for the company arise from the fact that what is collected is in fact personal data, according to the Article 29 Working Party. Their advice in 2011 stated “…the combinations of a unique MAC address and the calculated locations of a Wi-Fi access point should be treated as personal data”.

There are similar worries from the Information Commissioner’s Office, with a statement given to the Telegraph reading: “Any technology that involves the processing of personal information must comply with the Data Protection Act. We are aware of the concerns being raised over the use of these bins and will be making enquiries to establish what action, if any, is required.”