London tosses smartphone-sniffing rubbish bins

A London-based startup has been told to stop using public bins to collect smartphone data from people who pass one of a dozen in the city.

Using public recycling bins to collect data from people’s smartphones has been put on hold in London after the City of London Corporation demanded a startup doing just this stop immediately.

“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,” it said in a statement on Monday, noting that it had consulted the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office.

In June, a London startup Renew launched a dozen “Renew ORB” equipped recycling bins that, without consent, captured the proximity, speed, duration and manufacturer of tablets and smartphones passing the networked bins.

To collect the data, the company used a device’s unique Media Access Control (MAC) address, which is announced by devices with Wi-Fi activated.

Renew’s CEO, Kaveh Memari, said at the time the company would “cookie the street” with the product, drawing an analogy to web sites that use cookies to personalise online advertising.

After an initial trial, Renew claimed it had gathered data on 4,009,676 devices, promoting the potential to analyse foot-traffic flow data to reveal how long a person would “linger” in a store and areas they visited, return customers, average time between visits and other data.

The publication Quartz on Thursday brought attention to the WiFi-sniffing bins, which are located in London’s Cheapside area.

Memari said he believed because the data it data collected was anonymous, it was legal. However, on Monday, after concerns were raised, he announced it had called off the initial trials.

“During our initial trials, which we are no longer conducting, a limited number of pods had been testing and collecting annonymised (sic) and aggregated MAC addresses from the street and sending one report (sic) every three minutes concerning total footfall data from the sites. 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.”

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