London recycling bins no longer tracking smartphones

Recycling bins outfitted with Wi-Fi in London's financial district have had their smartphone-tracking capabilities shut down.

After news of the tracking effort was publicized, officials for the City of London demanded that marketing company Renew, which was behind the operation, shutter the program.

"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 the City of London, which is London's financial district.

Prior to the 2012 Olympic Games, Renew installed 100 recycling bins with advertising screens in London's financial district. However, only 12 of the bins were subsequently outfitted with Wi-Fi for tracking the MAC address on individual smartphones as they passed by.

In response to the public outcry regarding the dozen bins with Wi-Fi, Renew published an open letter from CEO Kaveh Memari on its website, in which he compared the mobile device tracking process to websites that track hits and evaluate repeat visitors.

"During early analysis, which is no longer being conducted, a limited number of pods had been testing and collecting [anonymized] 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 had been extrapolated is capabilities that could potentially be developed but none of which are workable right now," Memari said.

According to the Financial Times, a post on Renew's website in June described data the company was collecting as a "powerful tool for corporate clients and retailers" that could be used to predict "likely places to eat" and "personal habits."

Niri Shan, head of media at  law firm Taylor Wessing, told the Financial Times that the bins had likely breached both privacy law and the UK's data protection act.

For more:
- see this City of London statement
- see this Renew letter
- see this Quartz article
- see this Financial Times article (sub. req.)

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