The City of London is halting a scheme that used recycling bins to track people as they walked by with their smartphones. The head of Renew London, which was behind the operation, wrote in an email, “I can confirm that we are not currently running any trials.”
Quartz was the first to report on the tracking technology, installed in a dozen bins around London’s Square Mile. That story sparked an outcry of privacy concerns, with many Londoners expressing surprise at being monitored. The bins recorded a unique identification number for any electronic device in the area with Wi-Fi enabled.
“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,” the City of London said today in a statement. “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.”
Renew CEO Kaveh Memari wrote an open letter that sought to downplay what the bins could detect. “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,” he wrote.
Renew installed 100 high-tech recycling bins in the city before the 2012 Olympics. The bins are said to be bomb-proof, and the City of London boasted that they came “at no cost to tax payer.” For Renew, the value was in the screens on the side of each bin, where the company sells advertising space. The bins can also connect to the internet, allowing them to display up-to-date information.
A few months ago, Renew added device-tracking “Orbs” to 12 of the bins and began marketing additional services to local retailers. It sought to sell data about people walking by the bins and allow brands to target advertisements at people the bins recognized. The “orbs” were developed by another London-based company, Presence Aware, which markets the technology as providing “a cookie for the real world.”
Here is the full text of Memari’s letter:
To whom it may concern,
Thank you for your comments and your reactions are entirely understandable. 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.
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 to make sure we lead the charge on this as we are with the implementation of the technology. In the meantime, we appreciate your attention to this element of our company.
If this is an area that interests you, I am happy to keep you up to date with the latest as we develop and certainly welcome your thoughts and feedback.
CEO of Renew