(Image credit: screenshot from promotional videoby Renew on Vimeo)
City of London officials have told a company to stop their trial of street-side trashcans that track the smartphones of nearby pedestrians and are capable of building a detailed profile of where the smartphone has been in the past.
The technology used sounds a great deal like the systems used to track people in and around retail stores in the United States, apractice which is coming under increased scrutiny as of late. At least the trashcans aren’t using facial recognition, like some mannequins are, right?
The trashcans were part of a program developed by Renew, which involved the distribution of 12 devices featuring LCD advertising screens and technology capable of tracking the unique hardware identifier of every smartphone with Wi-Fi capabilities nearby.
The action from the officials took place after Big Brother Watch raised concerns about the privacy implications following an August 8 report detailing the technology in Quartz.
Renew chief executive Kaveh Memari told the BBC that their machines only recorded “extremely limited, encrypted, aggregated and anonymized data” in order to monitor local foot traffic, similar to the way websites monitor digital traffic.
Memari said that they took the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office but have “stopped all trials in the meantime.”
He also said that additional capabilities could be added to his company’s devices in the future, while adding that the public would be made aware of those changes.
“Irrespective of what’s technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets need to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public,” a spokesman for the City of London Corporation said.
However, Memari maintains that the bins are just “glorified people-counters in the street” and that Renew was not in possession of any personal information about the owners of the smartphones it tracked.
However, a press release from Renew notes that their technology:
“provides an unparalleled insight into the past behavior of unique devices – entry/exit points, dwell times, places of work, places of interest, and affinity to other devices – and should provide a compelling reach data base for predictive analytics (likely places to eat, drink, personal habits etc.).”
Some people might be under the impression that information like the above is indeed private.
Renew “may collect personal details without even knowing it,” Ars Technica points out.
“I am pleased the City of London has called a halt to this scheme, but questions need to be asked about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur in the first place,” said Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch.
In the United Kingdom, the practice of tracking the unique identifiers, known as MAC addresses, of smartphones is legal, though the BBC notes that it was been described as a “grey area.”
Given that Renew tracked over 4 million devices over a single week in June, using only 12 cans (a mere 10 percent of the company’s total inventory), this kind of tracking could be quite ubiquitous if given the green light.
Even more troubling than the prospect of marketers tracking millions of people in metropolitan areas is the possibility of “people doing the same thing for voyeuristic or personal agendas,” according to Ars Technica.
As Ars reported on August 8, it is now possible for people to actually create “DIY stalker boxes” capable of knowing “what time you left the bar last night, the number of times per day you take a cappuccino break, and even the dating website you use.”
That possibility makes city-wide tracking by marketers seem almost acceptable. Almost.
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