CEO defends use of London street bins that track smartphone users

The CEO of the company which installed monitoring equipment into recycling bins on London streets tracking the phones of passers-by to allow advertisers to target messages at people, has defended the installation of the devices.

A graphic from the Renew website explaining the technology

CEO of Renew, Kaveh Memari, said in a blog post that media reports on the issue had emphasised “style over substance that makes our technology trial slightly more interesting than it is.”

Newspaper reports stated that Renew had installed 100 internet-connected recycling bins with digital screens twelve of which had been fitted with technology that tracked smartphones.

“The idea is to bring internet tracking cookies to the real world. The bins record a unique identification number, known as a MAC address, for any nearby phones and other devices that have Wi-Fi turned on,” Atlantic Cities reported.

It said that Renew could identify people walking by.

Today, Memari said that the experiment had been discontinued, and the bins did not gather personal details.

"During our initial trials, which we are no longer conducting, a limited number of pods had 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."

He added: "A lot of what had been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now. For now, we no longer continue to count devices and are able to distinguish uniques versus repeats. However, 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. So we couldn’t tell, for example, whether we had seen devices or not as we never gathered any personal details.

He added: “At this stage, we were merely running a pilot with extremely limited, encrypted, anonymous/aggregated data.”

Memari acknowledged that there was a legal lacuna in this area.

In the EU websites now must inform users if cookies are being used, and to offer a warning allowing them to opt out before proceeding. Similar provisions are not yet in place for Wi-fi networks and devices such as smartphones or iPads.

He said “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.”

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